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Workshop on Mexican Day of the Dead

On Saturday, October 20, UMass Boston’s Spanish Resource Center, with the Massachusetts Department of Education, presented a workshop for K-12 teachers of Spanish as a Foreign Language and English as a Second Language on the history and practices of the Mexican Day of the Dead. The October 20 workshop was one of a series developed by the Spanish Resource Center to provide historical and cultural content and technology instruction for teachers of Spanish throughout Massachusetts. Ann Blum, of the Latin American Studies Program, Hispanic Studies Department, coordinated the workshop.

The Mexican and Mexican-American observances of the Day of the Dead, celebrated during the feast of All Saints from October 31 through November 2, incorporate practices with deep indigenous roots and also reflect contemporary cultural politics of Mexican communities in the United States.

In Mexico, rural observance and ritual still incorporate Pre-Columbian elements such as offerings of marigold petals, cempasuchil, and the deads’ favorite foods arranged on home altars, ofrendas, followed by night-long vigils at family graves. Wheat and sugar, both introduced during Mexico’s colonial period, are made into special breads and candies, especially the well-known decorated skulls. Urban and migrant celebrations have come to reflect the imagery of the early 20th-century penny-press engraver, Jose Guadalupe Posada, whose work was popularized by artists like Diego Rivera after the Mexican Revolution. Posada’s images of skulls and skeletons, calaveras, often satirizing politicians and society figures, were given new life in the large paper mache figures of folk artists like the Linares family of Mexico City.

The workshop included a slide presentation by Professor Judith Zeitlin, UMass, Boston, Department of Anthropology, on Aztec roots of Day of the Dead rituals. Dr. Susan Masuoka, director and curator of the Tufts University Art Gallery, discussed and illustrated more recent practices such as ofrendas honoring the victims of Mexico City’s 1985 earthquake and government-sponsored folk-art contests. The twenty-one participants included teachers from the primary, middle, and high-school levels who all gave the workshop enthusiastic evaluations.