By Sandra Torres
Dia Del Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead is a Mexican tradition honoring the dead that dates back to ancient history. November 1st, All Saints Day, and November 2nd, All Souls Day are the designated days for this holiday. The traditions are based on a blended history of cultures and creeds, including those of the Aztecs and Mayans. The Day of the Dead is a time to honor, commemorate and remember friends, family, and ancestors. It’s a day to welcome the spirits home.
It is believed that on the Day of the Dead, the spirits of those who have passed away, are allowed to return and reunite with their families for one night. One of the traditions practiced to welcome the dead is the making of an altar in their honor. The altar is usually placed in the home, or at their gravesite. The altar is laden with the person’s favorite foods, sweets, and drinks. Bread representing the food needed for survival, salt to season the food and purify, and water to quench the thirst and purify. A candle is lit for each of the dead, representing faith and hope. Pictures, personal items, and flowers also decorate the altar, along with any other items commemorating the departed.
The making of the altar is a time-honored tradition that is still practiced today, even in the youngest of generations. I visited with Carmen Campuzano’s, Muertos Altar Workshop for kids on their last day of a 4-week session at the Centro Cultural De La Raza in Balboa Park. The children ranged from age 7 to 12, all learning the traditions and customs practiced for the celebration of Day of the Dead.
Their teacher, Carmen Campuzano, has been teaching art to kids in Mexico for over ten years, and this workshop is her first experience working with kids on this side of the border. “It’s interesting working with these kids for the first time, watching their reactions. Kids in the U.S. with Mexican roots are enthusiastic about learning these traditions,” says Campuzano.
During the Muertos Altar Workshop students learned the different customs of Day of the Dead. In the first part of the workshop the kids made their altars in honor of their dead. The altar was decorated with candles, and clay skulls the kids made.
“My favorite part of the class was working with clay, and making the skulls,” explained 8-year old Rosendo Rosales. Some of them brought pictures of family members who had passed on. Another project the kids had already completed was a life size Muerte (Skeleton) drawing. One Skeleton was a Charro, with boots and a sombrero, another was a gymnist. Each student had to compose a Calavera Literaria, for their painting, which is a short anecdote about who their skeleton was and how it met his or her fate with death.
On the day of my visit the kids finished up their final project of the workshop, which was a self-portrait. The kids drew themselves and were then asked to include all of their favorite things they enjoy. “Part of honoring the dead also includes celebrating life,” explains Campuzano.
Some brought their favorite stuffed animals; others brought pictures of mom and dad, and even their pets. Some included their favorite toys, and art- work, while others painted their favorite foods. The self-portraits allowed the students to explore their creativity, at the same time learning their culture, and reinforcing their self-esteem.
Campuzano also explains that part of the children’s experience in this workshop is not only to work on the art projects for Day of the Dead, but to also be able to share their work with the public. All of their work will be showcased in an exhibit titled: Silencio Sus Ninos Hablan Con Sus Muertos / Silence Your Children Speak To Their Dead, starting November 1st.