Roger Thayer Stone Center For Latin American Studies

Tulane University

Celebrating Day of the Dead in Schools across New Orleans

November 7th, 2017

On Thursday, November 2, Denise Woltering and Rachel Witt of the Latin American Resource Center at the Stone Center for Latin American Studies visited two elementary school classrooms to share with students how Day of the Dead is celebrated throughout Latin America. Día de los muertos, or Day of the Dead (November 1st – 2nd), is a holiday that honors the dead with colorful festivals and lively celebrations. Over two days, families gather at family homes and cemeteries to remember deceased loved ones and to celebrate life.

Though this festival is typically associated with Mexico where the tradition originated, it is also celebrated throughout Latin America. Through a Title VI U.S. Department of Education National Resource Center Grant, Tulane University’s Latin American Resource Center at the Stone Center for Latin American Studies created a set of lessons about Day of the Dead traditions across the Americas, focusing on Guatemala, Haiti, and Peru. This year, for the culmination of the project, Denise Woltering and Rachel Witt shared Día de los muertos traditions with two elementary school classrooms at St. Martin’s Episcopal School, Metairie, and Ecole Bilingue, New Orleans. Students at Warren Easton Charter High School, New Orleans, also celebrated Day of the Dead. Students honored their loved ones by creating an altar with images of calaveras, food, flowers, and the favorite items of deceased family members.

Woltering and Witt introduced Day of the Dead to students with an overview of how the holiday is celebrated in Mexico and Guatemala. In Mexico, one of the most important traditions is the construction of altars to the dead in homes, in public places, and in cemeteries. Family members will leave ofrendas, or offerings, such as the favorite food and drink of the deceased family member on these altars. In Guatemala, communities make large kites out of tissue paper and bamboo with intricate designs and messages to their deceased family members, believing that the airborne kites are closer to the spirits of the ancestors.

This year, Woltering and Witt shared with students how the human skeleton is an integral part in many Día de los Muertos celebrations across the Americas. Alters in Mexico oftentimes include of representations of skulls made out of paper mache, and even sugar, to represent the sweetness of life. In Mexico, representation of bones and skeletons on altars traces its origins back to the Aztec Empire. Skulls of vanquished enemies were placed in public places and on skull racks, or tzompantlis, because these skulls were thought have protective forces. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Jose Guadalupe Posada, a famous Mexican artist and political cartoonist, drew satirical representations of skeletons, or calaveras. These representations have been adapted for use in Day of the Dead traditions, particularly his famous Calavera Catrina, a satirical upper class female skeleton wearing a large floppy hat.

Tulane graduate student and bioarchaeologist Rachel Witt shared with students how Peru’s Day of the Deceased (Dia de los dunfuntos) traditions relate to ways in which the pre-Columbian peoples treated the dead. Drawing on the descriptions of these traditions written by Spanish chronicle Guaman Poma de Ayala, Witt described how the mummies of Inka Emperors had an active role after death. Inka mummies were not buried, but lived in the palaces and houses they constructed while alive. These mummies were also consulted as oracles, received regular meals, and were even paraded through the streets of the Inka capital of Cusco during important celebrations. The Inka were not the only Pre-Columbian civilization to honor their dead. Before the Inka, family members of other Pre-Columbian cultures would place their deceased in large, above-ground tombs called chullpas. These towering chullpas were not simply tombs, but thought to be homes for the deceased. Reverence for the dead continues today, as modern Peruvians sometimes visit the pre-Columbian tombs of their ancestors and leave offers of coca leaves, cigarettes, coins, and even candy.

After the presentations, students were able to create their own Peruvian retablo to honor deceased loves ones. Retablos, or portable shrines, originated in Europe and came to Peru with the Spanish Conquistadors in the sixteenth century. The modern retablos style is a folk art reflecting cultural syncretism between indigenous beliefs and Catholicism that evolved in the Ayacucho region of Peru. Some modern retablos show strong influences of Mexican folk art, including scenes of death and Calaveras to celebrate Peruvian Day of the Deceased.

Explore photos of the celebrations and presentations here.

Guatemala + People
Marcello Canuto
Director - Middle American Research Institute, Professor - Anthropology