Students at Don Cecilio Martinez Elementary have been looking forward to making their own sugar skulls as they learn more about Dia de los Muertos from Principal Martha Johnsen, an expert and avid collector of memorabilia associated with the day.
Johnsen explained to a classroom of fourth-graders and kindergartners that the first two days in November people in Mexico remember those who have passed away, whether it’s family members, friends or even famous people. She said Nov. 1 is for children or los angelitos (little angels) and Nov. 2 is a time to remember adults.
Johnsen stressed to the children that Dia de los Muertos (the day of the dead) is not morbid and has nothing to do with violence.
“Its purpose is simple: to remember with joy and love the lives of those who have passed into death,” Johnsen said.
Johnsen told the kids that many people think Dia de los Muertos is kind of like a Mexican Halloween, but while she loves Halloween, it can be a little scary for some children because of the masks and haunted houses. Dia de los Muertos, on the other hand, is a time when people remember all the happy times in a person’s life.
“People go out and buy special decorations, food, flowers and much more, and sometimes build large ofrendas, or altars, where the offerings are displayed,” Johnsen told the kids.
Johnsen said the size of the ofrenda doesn’t matter because it’s one’s thoughts and memories of that special person that count.
“All you’re doing is remembering somebody who was very special to you. If we didn’t have our great grandparents, if we didn’t have our grandparents or if we didn’t have parents, we wouldn’t be here,” Johnsen said.
Johnsen told the children that in Spanish, there is a saying that a person can experience three kinds of death: the first death is when one takes his last breath; the second death is when the body is buried or cremated and can never be seen again; and the last death and possibly the worst is when a person is forgotten.
Fourth-grader Christopher Vallejos said he learned that Dia de los Muertos is not at all scary and it’s important to celebrate a person’s life.
Kayla Gonzales said, “Dia de los Muertos is about people who died that you want to remember. We have been learning that every person has a skeleton. Otherwise, we couldn’t stand up or walk.”
Teacher Valerie Martinez said, “We’ve been talking about this holiday since the beginning of October when Ms. Johnsen introduced it to us, so we’ve all been really excited about learning more. The students have decorated the classroom with skeletons made from Q-tips and things they’ve brought from home. It’s been interesting.”
Johnsen is also the principal at West’s Family Partnership School.