Regional focus: Mexico
Author: Roseanne Greenfield Thong
Illustrator: Charles Ballesteros
Genre: children’s literature
As a child, cemeteries scared me. I wasn’t frightened of a potential encounter with a ghost nor was I afraid of bumping into a dancing skeleton. In fact, ghosts and skeletons were whimsically enchanting to my child mind. However, I was uneasy with the quietness, the sterile ambiance, the secluded locations that accompanied cemeteries in the United States. I grew up in Southern California, and I remember sitting in the back seat of my mom’s Honda Civic, as we drove on the freeways that linked the suburbs to the Valley to greater Los Angeles, and wondering about the signs that lead to cemetaries in the distance. They were often found a few miles away from the off-ramps, in unpopulated areas.
My great-uncle died when I was 15, and his funeral was the first I remember attending. The silence of the cemetery made me feel as if I needed to hold my breath, as if a simple exhalation would disrupt the balance of the quiet park. Graves were placed in tidy rows, symmetrical and rectangular. The green grass was short, freshly cut, too perfect. And, I couldn’t wait to leave…to exhale, to talk, to feel.
I have lived abroad in Central America for nearly as long as I lived in the USA, first in Costa Rica, and for the past 15 years in Guatemala. My first encounter with a cemetery in Costa Rica was immediate and striking. Cemeteries in Latin America are often located in town centers and the bus I rode home from the university circled the local cemetery before chugging up the steep hill to my neighborhood. The cemeteries were a colorful, chaotic collection of raised graves in a labyrinth of wavy lines. Often the ice-cream vendor would be selling home-made treats for visitors to purchase at the entrance. During the day, families and individuals passed through the cemetery to “saludar” a dead relative or simply to stroll to their next destination. The cemetery was alive, and perhaps, for the first time in my adult life, I felt unafraid while visiting.
I have never experienced Dia de los Muertos in Mexico, but I have had the privilege of knowing Dia de los Santos in Guatemala for the past 15 years. On November 1st, families gather in our local cemetery to sit, to remember, and to honor their loved ones who have passed away. Words can’t describe the holiday; truly it’s an event to feel. Abuelos string their guitars and sing to their dead wives, candles twinkle in the night air, the tink-tink of the ice-cream cart dances through the graves. There is laughter and there are tears. There is no silence. Flowers adorn tombs, both large and small. Again, the cemetery is alive.
While I acknowledge that mourning and death are strong and difficult topics to confront in any culture, I feel that when death is familiar, and not hidden, when death is a celebration of memories and not an overwhelming tragedy, death becomes a passage, a natural occurrence, a transition that doesn’t need to be laden in fear.
For this one simple reason (although there are many more), I appreciate the celebration of Dia de los Santos/Muertos and look forward to the yearly ritual to remember and honor those who are no longer with us, and poco a poco, I feel more comfortable with the theme of dying.
Dia de los Muertos by Roseanne Greenfield Thong is a fantastic tool for sharing the concepts of the holiday with children.
Dia de los Muertos introduces readers, both young and old, to the traditional holiday of Day of the Dead that is celebrated in Latin American countries on November 1st. Thong writes in catchy rhymes which make her story fun and enjoyable to read aloud. We learn of the tradition of creating and eating calaveras (sugar skulls), of decorating altars to honor the lives of those who have passed, and of visits to decorated cemetaries.
What I love:
- I love that a holiday that is unfamilar to many, now has a children’s book to explain it’s rituals and importance.
- I love the joyful and colorul ilustations of Ballesteros.
- I love that Thong weaves Spanish vocabulary into her story.
Themes: cultural festivities, ancestors, traditions
- What is your favorite family celebration?
- Has a person or an animal who was special to you died? How do you remember him/her?
- Do you think that our ancesters who have passed away can feel our presence when we celebrate them? Why? How?
- Make an altar to honor a special friend, family member or pet who has passed away. Decorate your altar with photos, food that the person/pet enjoyed, flowers, and streamers.
- Draw a picture of your favorite family celebration.
- Print out and color a calavara. Find templates here and here.