Day of the Dead Comes Alive

Day of the Dead Comes Alive
Day of the Dead Comes Alive

This year at the Lower School, Día de los Muertos has a distinctly Guatemalan take. 

This year, instead of the traditional Día de los Muertos offrenda, an altar built to honor lost loved ones, the Lower School explored the same ritual through a Guatemalan lens. Every November, the Festival de Barriletes Gigantes—also called the Day of the Dead Giant Kite Festival—marks one of the oldest and most colorful holidays in Guatemala. The Guatemalans create massive, multi-story, vibrant kites out of paper, cloth, and bamboo to represent an ancient belief that flying enormous kites connects one to their ancestors. So, instead of an altar, the Lower School students created a stunning barrilete using tissue-paper and ribbons. The tradition is not about mourning loved ones so much as allowing people—especially children—to celebrate loved ones. 

The barrilete project’s origins started with a summer grant to reimagine Hispanic-Latinx Heritage Month. The efforts were led by Lower School Spanish teachers Ángela Ballesteros Gómez and Luz Marina Cardozo Muñoz, Lower School art teacher Kristen Campbell, and Supervía Endowed Faculty Chair for Spanish and Latin American Studies Silvana Niazi with significant input from the PA’s Parents of Latin American Students. Using queries crafted by the Quaker Education clerks, teachers helped children see the connections between the Guatemalan barrilete tradition and the School’s Quaker values. “Our barrilete includes the community’s shared values, memories of loved ones, the Guatemalan flag, and butterfly depictions,” says Niazi. “Butterflies typically symbolize the guiding of souls at this time of the year.”

“By creating individual student art with messages in Spanish and English for the communal barrilete first, the students could explore expressions of reverence unique to Guatemala on their own,” says Ballestreros Gómez. “Then the students worked together, combining each individual message to create a single massive barrilete.” Investigating these expressions of reverence allows the School to bring in different nations, cultures, and rituals from throughout the vast Latin American region.

Students applied vocabulary, language, and artistic skills taught in the classroom to the project as a way of providing context and using their new knowledge. Some students decorated their barrilete with cempasúchil flowers (marigolds) and paper quetzales (quetzals) for good luck. “The students in art class were completely enthralled by the bold use of symmetrical shapes and colors in the barriletes!” says Campbell. “The idea that they could collaborate and replicate such an ambitious artistic tradition was seemingly unbelievable.”

“The students loved dancing and learning traditional Guatemalan songs while making kites to honor their ancestors, loved ones, and pets,” adds Cardozo Muñoz. “Many students also wrote messages for their loved ones on the tail of the communal barrilete, encompassing the children’s hopes and dreams for a better world.”

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