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By Angela Padrón

In the United States, probably the most vibrant and recognized is the Mexican culture, especially in states where Mexico is in closer proximity such as Texas and California.

One of the most widely recognized Mexican holidays is El Día de los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead.” El Día de los Muertos is a time to remember those people who have died and celebrate their life. For decades – actually centuries – death has been celebrated in Mexican culture because tradition states that when people die their souls continued to exist. Death is seen as a path to the afterlife where a person’s soul could live for eternity.

The holiday can be traced back to the indigenous populations of Mexico, such as the Aztecs and Mayans. They honored the goddess Mictecacihuatl, who they considered to be Queen of the Underworld, or Lady of the Dead. During the festival people first honored any deceased children, ones they called los angelitos. Finally they celebrated the lives of those who passed away as adults. This festival lasted for an entire month, from the end of July to mid-August during the time of corn harvests.

After the Spanish conquered the Aztecs in 1521, they tried to convert the beliefs of the indigenous people to Catholicism. Instead, their festival was shortened to two days around All Saints Day and All Souls Day, which fall on November 1-2. Today the celebrations begin on Halloween, with the belief that the souls of the dead come down to Earth to reunite with their loved ones for a few days.

To celebrate, people decorate alters called ofrendas with candles, flowers, fruit, toys and candies, and other foods and drinks for the weary spirits who are coming down from the heavens to enjoy the festivities prepared for them. Decorative folk art skeletons and sugar skulls add the finishing touch.

Nowadays, El Día de los Muertos is becoming more of a cultural holiday than a religious one. You can create different activities with your students, including paper sugar skulls, tissue paper flowers, and a diorama to replicate an ofrenda. Other ideas include teaching students about the parts of the body by making a skeleton or traditional Mexican dances and music. It’s a way to remember and honor the memories of loved ones and to remember not how they died but how they once lived.

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