El Día de los Muertos/Day of the Dead: A Cultural Exploration

by Julia López-Robertson & Lillian Reeves, with Nicoleta Hodis, Lisa Stockdale, Ashlye Rumph-Geddis, Mary Jade Haney & Amy Bartholomew, University of South Carolina

A gift for Abuelita: Our entrée into El Día de los Muertos

Book jacket for a Gift for Abuelita by by Nancy Luenn El Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) has its’ origins more than 3,000 years ago when the Aztec Indians, who inhabited Mexico, spent four months each year honoring the dead with ceremonies and rituals. With the arrival of the Conquistadores in the 16th century came the elimination of the already established Aztec traditions and their replacement with the Spanish beliefs and traditions which followed the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. Rather than completely accept the Spanish traditions, the indigenous peoples resolved to mesh “ancient traditions with those of the church” (Arquette, Zocchi &Vigil, 2008, p.8) and the result is el Día de los Muertos.

El Día de los Muertos is celebrated throughout Mexico on November 1 and 2. During the holiday people create altars in their homes, clean and decorate the gravesites of family members, prepare special foods, attend mass and come together in cemeteries where they eat, dance, and sing “while reconnecting with their roots” (Arquette, Zocchi &Vigil, 2008, p. 10). The holiday is a time for celebrating the departed and is viewed asan obligation of respect…that ensures that a beloved’s soul will never be forgotten and therefore truly will never die” (Arquette, Zocchi &Vigil, 2008, p. 9).

Selecting as the focal point of this blog the timely and upcoming El Día de los Muertos we invited students in my course to read, review and share their responses to children’s picture books written about El Día de los Muertos. For the month of October we will be sharing the students’ responses and our journey as we encourage teachers to view their students’ “households as containing ample cultural and cognitive resources,” (Moll, Amanti, Neff & González, 2001, p. 134) disrupting long-established beliefs about working-class families and communities.

A Gift for Abuelita

Written in both English and Spanish, Nancy Luenn’s A Gift for Abuelita is an endearing story of the relationship between Rosita and her grandmother, a story of the importance of family traditions and of how rituals can help us deal with loss. Rosita and her Abuelita spend precious time together each day as Rosita learns to braid, to cook tortillas and which plants to weed or to keep in the garden. However, before Abuelita gets a chance to teach Rosita how to make salsa, Abuelita gets sick and dies. As Rosita struggles with the loss of her grandmother, she also begins to understand the significance of El Día de los Muertos. Her family encourages her to make an offering, or ofrenda, for the altar to honor her grandmother and by doing so Rosita gains closure and comfort.

Selected Student responses


 Nancy Luenn’s picture book offers a great opportunity to capitalize on our emergent bilingual students’ knowledge to support their English language learning (Campano, 2007). A Gift for Abuelita is more than a picture book about love, loss and remembrance, it also provides a glimpse into another culture’s way to celebrate the people they loved and who have died. The book prompts an intellectual exchange of cultural knowledge that includes lessons on cooking and family relation as well as on traditions and ways of remembering loved ones. Paraphrasing Sharon Subreenduth (2010) one might say that it provides a creative way of teaching global perspectives or multicultural awareness from more authentic perspective (see also Abt-Perkins & Gomez, 1993). Complementary, the illustrations of the book, besides depicting the story exceptionally and in a colorful palette, entail an expert level of understanding of the background information, another great opportunity for our students to voice their cultural heritage (Campano, 2007).


 A Gift for Abuelita helps readers, especially teachers, gain a better understanding and appreciation for Día de los Muertos, a holiday that may be an important part of many Mexican-American students’ cultures. As Freeman & Freeman (2004) point out, the most effective teachers “draw on students’ backgrounds-their experiences, cultures and languages” (p.3) and use “collaborative activities [to] scaffold instruction to build…academic English proficiency” (p.3). English Language Learners (ELLs) are entitled to classroom opportunities which reflect and celebrate their native cultures. A Gift for Abuelita offers insight into the family traditions surrounding the national Mexican holiday Dίa de los Muertos and demonstrates how remembrance and reflection can bring about healing. Despite teachers’ ‘comfort levels’ dealing with subjects like death or religious/spiritual practices (Campano, 2007), Nancy Luenn’s A Gift for Abuelita should be part of all elementary classroom libraries if teachers are to provide the learning experiences that their ELL’s deserve.

Mary Jade

 Using well written children’s books in “exploring cultural identities” (Freeman & Freeman, 1994) with students is necessary to support introducing social and political issues that may otherwise be ignored. Quality children’s books are also viable resources when opening discussions on such issues as immigration and cultural celebrations. Wolf (2004) citing Toni Morrison, suggested that we live “in a highly and historically racialized society” (p.4), and a failure to take this into serious account might blind you to aspects of literature, and more importantly to aspects of your children who are struggling to be seen.


 I purchased an additional copy of A Gift for Abuelita on-line so that each of the students would have a copy rather than have to share a couple of copies. When the book was delivered, I noticed that it was a former library copy that was practically new; when I opened the book I could hear the cracks signaling that it was hardly ever touched. Upon further inspection, I noticed a black mark on the inside cover that read ‘withdrawn’. I asked the students to consider what may have caused it to be withdrawn?


 From the standpoint of the dominant culture, I can see why they would object to this holiday. For those who operate in a monocultural state of being, they wouldn’t feel comfortable exposing themselves or others to the concept of honoring the dead on an annual basis or recognizing that other cultural backgrounds have different ways to celebrate the lives of loved ones who have passed. Another thing that may pose as a problem for teachers and readers that are not a part of this ethnic group may not agree or identify with the concepts of spirits of the dead coming back to life or visiting you one day a year and may not feel comfortable with children being exposed to the theory. Some people may even compare it to witch craft due to it being celebrated on the American holiday of Halloween. I think in most cases, things that are uncomfortable and difficult for people to explain lend them the opportunity to avoid having to do so. In this case, withdrawing this book from circulation would ensure that people don’t have to face ideas and concepts that they aren’t familiar with, believe in, or comfortable explaining.


 The only reason I can see why any school would withdraw this book from the library would be the part about leaving ofrendas on an altar that is built inside the house. But that is not unusual. Maybe it is because at the end of the book Rosita feels as if in her heart her grandmother’s voice whispers to her. But that is not unusual either as many cultures believe in the presence of spirits. There is no good reason why young people should not read this story. They can make a connection to their own lives while at the same time learning about another culture.


We are hopeful that by inviting students to examine books representing cultures that differ from their own that they will come to view students’ rich cultural identities as “important resources for educational change” (Moll et. al, p. 139). An exploration of Día de los Muertos provides rich intersections between American and Mexican cultures with a distinct focus on story-telling and place-based memories.


 Abt-Perkins, D. and Gomez, M., L., (1993). A Good Place to begin: Examining Our Personal Perspectives. Language Arts, 70, pp.193-202.

Arqutte,K; Zocchi, A. & Vigil, J. (2008). Day of the Dead crafts: More tan 24 projects that celebrate Día de los muertos. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, Inc.

Campano, G. (2007). Immigrant Students and Literacy. Reading , Writing and Remembering. New York: Teachers College Press.

Freeman, D. & Freeman, Y. (2004). Three types of English Language Learners. School Talk, 9 (4), pp. 106.

Luenn, N. (1998). A Gift for Abuelita: Celebrating the Day of the Dead (Un regalo para

Abuelita: En celebración del Día de los Muertos. Flagstaff: Northland Publishing.

Moll, L. C., Amanti, C., Neff, D. and Gozalez, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching:

Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory into practice. 31(2), 132-141.

Subreenduth, S., (2010). Travel Dialogues of/to other. Complicating Identities and Global

Pedagogy. Critical Global Perspectives, Charlotte, NC Information Age Publishing, Inc., (pp. 199-222).

Wolf, S. A., (2004). Interpreting literature with children. NJ: Erlbaum.

Journey through Worlds of Words during our open reading hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

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