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When Spirits Dance: Exploring Identity Through Day of the Dead Traditions

Performing arts teacher Christopher Sandoval taps into his students’ cultural identities and family histories by exploring a holiday centered around the dead.

When Spirits Dance: Exploring Identity Through Day of the Dead Traditions

Performing arts teacher Christopher Sandoval taps into his students’ cultural identities and family histories by exploring a holiday centered around the dead.

January 28, 2022
A photograph of Faviola Leyva

Faviola Leyva

Video Producer

With their faces painted to resemble a colorful skull, a room full of first graders twirls to the beat of folkloric Mexican music in honor of their deceased loved ones. Watch lessons in cultural identity, healing, and civil rights unfold in this short documentary about a classroom’s celebration of “Día de los Muertos,” or Day of the Dead.

Performing arts teacher Christopher Sandoval (Rio Grande Valley ‘14) gathers his students into a circle. “Our ofrenda,” he tells his rapt audience, “is an offering to the people we want to honor.” The students’ eyes fixed on him, Sandoval reviews items on the class’s “ofrenda,” or offering–an elaborate, vibrant altar designed to honor the spirits of loved ones and moral leaders who have passed away. 

With origins in Mexico, Day of the Dead has become a widely celebrated holiday for many Latinx and Hispanic families and others around the world. Deeply steeped in tradition, it is an opportunity to honor life, family and legacy with events usually taking place on Nov. 1 and 2.

Christopher Sandoval (Rio Grande Valley ‘14) teaching a student about “Día de los Muertos.” Faviola Leyva

By creating an immersive experience with ofrendas at the altar, painting face masks, and participating in Mexican folkloric dance, Sandoval’s students at KIPP Comienza Community Prep in Huntington Park, California, learn the significance of the holiday. Some discover and preserve their family’s history along the way, too. 

Sandoval, who is of Mexican-American descent, says the Day of the Dead celebration empowers students to connect with their own cultural heritage and build a sense of belonging and confidence.

Beyond practicing self expression, he says becoming familiar with different cultural traditions helps students build their emotional capacity for respect and empathy. The class’s altar pays tribute not only to deceased family members, but also to George Floyd, Jakelin Caal and Felipe Gómez Alonzo, adults and children whose murder or untimely deaths have served as rallying cries for social change. 

For Sandoval, this altar is an opportunity to help students unite in social justice struggles. “We see a big intersection between cultural traditions and social justice,” he says. “We’re here to open minds in our classroom through culturally responsive teaching, so our children could walk out being more successful and more responsible citizens of this country and of their community.” 

To learn more about Day of the Dead and how you can honor this tradition in your classrooms, please visit this teaching resource designed by David Anctil and written by Daisy Barrón, Teach for America’s national managing director for cross-content specializing in culturally relevant pedagogy and culturally and linguistically diverse students.

Day of the Dead teaching module

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