First: A Field Experience
The World Language and Cultural Studies program at Ancona integrates language study with explorations of the rich Spanish-speaking cultures of the world in a four-year cycle: 1) Spain; 2) Mexico, Central-America, and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean; 3) South America; and 4) Latinos in the USA. As part of this year’s cultural focus on México, América Central y el Caribe Hispanohablante, students of all ages got to spend a day in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago immersing themselves in authentic experiences. They visited sites ranging from a supermercado and a panadería (bakery) to the National Museum of Mexican Art, where they viewed and learned about a variety of art traditions including the annual display of “ofrendas” in preparation for Día de los Muertos.
Ofrendas are objects displayed on “altares” (altars) that are traditionally composed of four “levels” representing air, water, earth and sky. They are used to honor, celebrate, commemorate, or reflect the personality of a deceased relative. Contemporary altars and their ofrendas can be much more creative and flexible. Some ofrendas honor or focus on social justice or environmental issues, such as cruelty to animals or the struggles of various groups of underserved or oppressed peoples. This year at Ancona, students in grades 1 through 8 are engaged in ofrendas projects of their own, culminating in a display and activities this Friday.
In their letter home about the Ofrendas project, Spanish teachers Christina Kuszewski-Rouches and Christiane Westhelle describe Día de los Muertos as
“A fusion of Spanish cultural traditions and an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, this festival is a time for friends and families to gather together and remember deceased loved ones. Traditions associated with this holiday include building altars decorated with marigold flowers, candles, papel picado (colored tissue paper), photos and calaveras de azúcar (sugar skulls). Families typically visit the graves of the departed, bearing gifts and praying for their souls.
In most regions of Mexico, November 1st is a day to honor children and infants, and is known as both Día de los Inocentes (“Day of the Innocents”) and Día de los Angelitos (“Day of the Little Angels”). November 2nd typically honors adults who have died, and is known as Día de los Muertos or Día de los Difuntos (“Day of the Dead”). Although it occurs at roughly the same time as Halloween in the United States, the traditions are quite different; the Day of the Dead being a tradition that celebrates the lives of those who have died (rather than death itself).”
While at the Museum of Mexican Art, students viewed a number of altars but were especially enthralled by the one celebrating the life and work of Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, who passed away this year in April. The elaborate altar was constructed in the shape of a book–which immediately appealed to our bibliophile students, of course–and displayed ofrendas honoring and commemorating the famous author. Staff at the museum explained the significance of various items on the altar, the types of materials used, and how the artist honored this important figure through the display.
Second: Making Our Own Ofrendas
Back at Ancona, our students were invited to choose from a list of possible topics or someone or something with personal significance as the subject of their own ofrendas. Each grade level approached making ofrendas in a developmentally appropriate way. Kindergarten students discussed an altar dedicated to Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in their Spanish classroom. Each 1st/2nd grade class is displaying its ofrendas in one large group altar for each classroom in the main hallway. 3rd/4th graders are constructing their altars out of boxes, which they decorate and fill or cover with ofrendas. 5th and 6th graders created mini retablos—another form of remembrance through visual display—with Janet Musich in Art class; and 7th and 8th graders are working in groups to construct larger altars—using desks, tables, large boxes, and other materials. The boxes and larger altars will be displayed in Room 104.
Third: Display, Present and Reflect
Parents, you are welcome to take a look at all the ofrendas tomorrow, Friday, Oct 31, from 11:30 to 1:30, and, while here, you are invited to honor anyone that has passed away by writing a few words about him/her (or about an issue that is of concern to you, i.e., homelessness, violence in our communities, etc.) on our “Community Ofrenda.”
The work of planning, researching/reflecting on, constructing, and decorating the altars has offered students a whole range of design challenges and technical problems to solve. “How do we attach this heavy piece to our box?” “What colors go well with the marigolds we made?” “How can I best express how sad these animals are when they are locked up in cages?” are just some of the questions students posed to themselves and each other as they created their altars. And students used everything from glue and paper to legos and potting soil, but especially their imaginations, to realize the ideas and feelings they were hoping to express.
Fourth: Special Guest Artist
When the projects are finished, the learning will continue, as students display their work and tell parents and peers about the person or issue they are honoring and the process for creating their altars. We are very fortunate that Señora Rita Arias Jirasek, the artist who made the ofrenda in honor of Gabriel Garcia Márquez, will speak about her own ofrenda as well as the diversity of honorings practiced in Mexico when she visits the school on Friday.
The Ofrendas Project is a wonderful example not only of how Mexican and other Spanish-speaking cultures are explored in-depth in our World Languages program, but how project-based learning allows students to develop a deeper understanding of cultural and social justice issues. By engaging their heads, hearts, and hands in the creation of a visual display based on research and thoughtful reflection on an issue or a person they find interesting or meaningful, students stretch themselves to both understand the topic and to express their own feelings about it while learning about a rich cultural tradition.
3rd and 4th graders constructing their altars.
Señora Christiane and 4th grade students discussing how to include an explicación on their ofrenda displays: