A celebration of the Day of the Dead in Guanajuato, Mexico.
Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
Much can be learned about a nation by the events that appear on its calendar. National holidays provide insight into the values of a country while commemorating its history. Mexico today is the product of ancient Indian civilizations, European conquest, Catholic missionary efforts, two long and bloody revolutions, and many other wars. The encounter between European and indigenous, Catholic and pagan, and rich and poor has generated a unique culture in Mexico.
This lesson will focus on holidays that represent and commemorate Mexico's religious traditions, culture, and politics over the past five hundred years. The holidays celebrated by Mexico today exemplify the synthesis of ancient Mexican religion and Catholicism, and commemorate the struggles of Mexico's different social classes and ethnic groups. The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Dia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe) is a Catholic celebration of the appearance of the Virgin Mary to an Indian man in the first years of Spanish rule. The Day of the Dead (El Dia de los Muertos) is a celebration that has developed out of a combination of indigenous and Catholic rituals for honoring the deceased. Mexico's Independence Day commemorates The Cry of Dolores (El Grito de Dolores), when Mexico's rural poor began a fight to overthrow the Spanish in 1810. Finally, Cinco de Mayo, a celebration that continually grows in popularity in the United States, commemorates a Mexican military victory over the French in 1862.
After Hernando Cortes conquered the Aztec Empire in 1521, Catholic missionaries swept into the area to convert the indigenous peoples. European efforts at evangelism were not always effective, especially when missionaries attempted to introduce the Christian faith and religious practices without alteration or adaptation to indigenous customs. However, the Aztecs did find elements of their own religion in some Catholic rituals. For example, the Aztecs were known (and feared by some other Indian communities) for their practice of human sacrifice. This ceremonial ritual of their religion made them receptive to the idea of consuming the flesh of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. Furthermore, the Aztec worship of the goddess Tonantzin was transferred to the veneration of the Virgin Mary in the Catholic faith. Thus, a blending of Aztec customs and Catholic beliefs resulted in a distinctive Mexican religious culture. Within the first decade of Spanish rule, hundreds of thousands of native Mexicans converted to Catholicism. To learn more about Cortes' conquest of Mexico see the EDSITEment-reviewed Conquistadors.
A common example of the fusion of Aztec and Catholic practices is evident throughout Mexico every autumn during the celebration of El Dia de los Muertos. Observed during the Catholic feasts of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day—November 1 and 2—this traditional Mexican holiday celebrates the two-day return of deceased relatives to their loved ones remaining on Earth. Honoring the dead is a 4,000 year old tradition in Mexico. Since Catholicism has become the dominant religion in Mexico, the festivities surrounding El Dia de los Muertos have absorbed certain Christian practices including the praying of the rosary. However, the observance of this tradition is more celebratory than somber. Death is something to be feared in Mexican culture, but Mexicans receive its threat with humor. Although a typical part of the celebration involves a candlelight vigil and La Llorada ('the weeping"), El Dia de los Muertos is an opportunity to laugh at death. This mockery is evident in the amusing skeletons and specialty foods that adorn the altars to the dead. These altars are erected by family members in cemeteries and can be elaborate or simple.
The Catholic Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe has its origins in December of 1531. A recently converted Indian, Juan Diego, was traveling over Tepeyac Hill—the former site of an Aztec shrine to the goddess Tonantzin—outside of Mexico City. When Juan Diego reported to the local bishop that he had seen the mother of the Christian God on Tepeyac Hill and she addressed him in his native language and asked that a shrine be built for her at the site, Church officials were skeptical. Bishop Zumarraga asked the elderly Aztec to bring a sign of the apparition. Three days later, Juan Diego returned to the bishop and released a bundle of roses from his cloak, on which a colorful image of the Virgin Mary appeared. Stunned by the image and the abundance of roses in the middle of December, the bishop ordered that a shrine be erected. Subsequent bishops embellished the shrine and in 1904 it was given the status of a basilica. Today, Juan Diego's cloak is displayed above the altar in the Basilica of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Although other Marian apparitions have been reported throughout the centuries, the Catholic Church has not recognized the validity of every reported sighting. However, numerous popes have supported the authenticity of the appearance of the Lady of Guadalupe. In 1859 her feast day, December 12, became a Mexican national holiday. For a detailed chronology of Catholicism in Mexico, visit Our Lady of Guadalupe, accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed Latin American Network Information Center. Almost three centuries after Juan Diego's experience on Tepeyac Hill, a makeshift army of Mexican peasants carried an image of the Lady of Guadalupe as they prepared to fight Spanish authorities for Mexico's independence.
The celebration of Mexican independence is September 16, the anniversary of El Grito de Dolores. In 1810, two years after Napoleon conquered Spain and placed his brother Joseph on the throne, a Catholic priest in the small central Mexican town of Dolores called together his parishioners and rallied them to overthrow the Spanish. The speech of Father Miguel Hidalgo became known as "El Grito de Dolores" (The Cry of Dolores). The Indian peasants of Father Hidalgo's parish were not the only Mexicans discontent with Spanish rule. The Creoles, Spaniards born in Mexico, were not afforded the same opportunities available to the Peninsulares, Spaniards born in Spain. Thus, Indians were organizing to overthrow oppressive landowners in central Mexico just as the Creoles were planning to overthrow the Peninsulares who were pledging allegiance to the newly imposed French king. The next decade became a bloodbath of class struggle. Father Hidalgo, and subsequently his successor Father Jose Maria Morelos, were captured and executed by loyalist forces. In 1821, however, conservatives aligned with the Indian uprising and Mexico's independence was won. In 1823, Mexico became a republic. Although multiple factions within Mexican society had fought for over ten years, the call for action by Father Hidalgo in 1810 is recognized as Mexico's Independence Day. But Mexico's war for independence would not be the last time the country would battle Europeans on its own soil. For further background on the fight for Mexican independence see the background history on the EDSITEment-reviewed website Mexico for Kids. Additional background on Mexican Independence can also be found via this EDSITEment-reviewed site, Audiolibros, Niños 2010.
In 1861 a three year civil war ended with a victory for Mexico's liberals and the election of Benito Juarez as president. Conservatives, resistant to the reforms of Juarez's government, called on Europe for help. While England and Spain saw an opportunity to demand repayment of debts incurred during the Mexican-American War, which had ended in 1848, France planned to use the turmoil in Mexico as a chance to expand their empire. As Napoleon III sent an army to Mexico, England and Spain abandoned their financial demands. In May of 1862, the French invasion force met the Mexican army at the town of Puebla in central Mexico. After four hours of fighting the Mexicans emerged victorious. The Battle of Puebla proved to be more of a morale boost than anything else, as the French went on to seize the entire country and install the Austrian nobleman Maximilian von Hapsburg as emperor. Juarez's forces continued the struggle against French occupation, and in 1867 Napoleon III gave up and called his army home. Juarez had Emperor Maximilian executed. The anniversary of Mexico's defeat of a formidable French force on May 5, 1862 became a yearly commemoration of heroism, celebrated most fervently in the region of Puebla. Information on Mexico's history and the lives of important historical figures can be accessed through the EDSITEment-reviewed site from the National History Museum in Mexico City.
This activity introduces two important dates and events in Mexican history. Students will research and discuss the basic elements of El Grito de Dolores, September 16th, and Cinco de Mayo, May 5th. The goal is to help students understand what the holidays are commemorating and which important events took place on each occasion, but also to emphasize the historical differences between the two holidays.
Begin the activity by asking if there are students in the classroom who have celebrated these holidays either in Mexico or in the U.S. Ask them to describe how they celebrated with their friends and family. Ask how their family interprets each holiday, how it has significance in their culture, and what it means to them now.
If students are not familiar with these holidays, ask them to look at the historical background to Mexico's Independence Day celebrations on the Mexico for Kids website, an EDSITEment-reviewed resource. Students can also find more information on Mexican Independence one of the featured EDSITEment-reviewed resources.
Be sure that students note that when Father Hidalgo led the Indians and the "mestizo" forces against the Spanish, he used an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe as a revolutionary banner. This helps to demonstrate the link between religion and politics in Mexican history.
Next, ask students to view the following pictures from the EDSITEment-reviewed Getty website of Mexico's Centennial Celebration held in September, 1910. The questions that follow each picture can be used to generate class discussion.
Finally, conclude this activity by asking the students to consider the following questions:
The story of Dia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, celebrated on December 12th, recounts the moment in the history of Mexico and the Roman Catholic Church when the Catholic faith entered into the hearts of the Mexican people. At first the Spanish missionaries encountered difficulties converting the indigenous people. According to tradition, it was not until Juan Diego, an Indian peasant farmer, was blessed with the vision and later the image of the Virgin Mary and brought evidence of his miraculous vision that the Church began to take a firm hold on the Mexican people.
The goal of this activity is to help students understand the significance of this appearance of the Virgin Mary in the form of an Indian maiden, not only in a religious context but also in a historical context. Begin by directing students to explore the Our Lady of Guadalupe: Patroness of the Americas website, accessible from the EDSITEment-reviewed Latin American Network Information Center. They should pay particular attention to the pages devoted to Juan Diego and to the apparitions and the images of Our Lady of Guadalupe. They should also examine some of the images of the Basilica that was built as a shrine to the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Note that this site also includes some online videos of the image and the Basilica.
When they have explored the historical context for the holiday, ask them to look at some further information on the holiday celebration on the MEXonline website.
After students have become familiar with the story of Juan Diego and the appearance of the Virgin, ask them to consider the following questions about this important Mexican holiday:
This activity introduces students to the dedicative altars that are made on El Dia De Los Muertos. This holiday, celebrated on November 1st and 2nd, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, can be compared in some of its aspects to the American celebration of Halloween, or All Hallows' Eve. But there are some distinctive differences in the practices and customs of the Mexican holiday that should not be missed when students look more closely at the celebration of the Day of the Dead.
Again, this is an opportunity to ask if any students in the classroom have ever celebrated this holiday. This is an effective way to begin to dispel some of the pre-conceived notions the holiday may give rise to. Mexico's celebration of these special days dedicated to the departed are merry and festive days that allow for visits with deceased relatives and loved ones. On this day, Mexican people believe that the dead walk among them joining them in festival and eating the treats that are left for them.
One of the most distinctive features of the celebration of the Day of the Dead is the altar where family members leave their offerings or ofrendas, the goods set out on the altars, consisting of flowers (both real and paper), pictures, pastries, treats, and possessions of sentimental value. The altars themselves are intended to commemorate the deceased relative and welcome them home again.
The goal of this lesson is to encourage students to enter into the spirit of the celebration and to understand the significance of the altars and the offerings to departed loved ones and relatives. The MexicoConnect website, accessible from the EDSITEment-reviewed Latin American Network Information Center, has a page of links dedicated to the Day of the Dead which students can explore to learn more about the celebrations and traditions of the holiday. Among the best resources are the following:
Additional images of Day of the Dead celebrations are also available:
After reviewing the above sites and others on MexicoConnect, ask the students to design a mock altar of their own using some of the images and ideas they have collected from the MexicoConnect web pages. For this activity you may want to divide the students into groups and have each group design decorations of flowers, skeletons, or skulls; compose a poem; find recipes for candy or pastry treats; or suggest other appropriate activities based on their study of the websites. When students have finished designing their altars and planning their celebrations, ask each group to discuss the significance of their offerings and decorations.
Have the students either write a brief essay or make a chart comparing the two holidays. Ask them to begin by brain storming ways in which Halloween is celebrated in the U.S. Is Halloween a holiday connected with honoring the dead? Next compare what they have learned about the traditions associated with El Dia de los Muertos to the traditions associated with Halloween.
Do the same assignment for El Grito de Dolores and the 4th of July, either a brief essay or a chart comparing the two holidays. Ask students to begin by listing all the 4th of July activities they can think of. Then tell them to compare what they have learned about Mexican celebrations of Independence Day. Ask them to consider both the similarities and the differences they discover between the two holidays.
Exploring language is a valuable way to add to the understanding of cultural traditions. Several of the websites in this lesson introduce some colorful Spanish words and expressions associated with these holidays, especially El Dia de los Muertos. Ask students to make a list of all the Spanish words and their English definitions and equivalents they can find related to these holidays. You can help them get started by showing them the Day of the Dead Glossary on the AZCentral.com website, accessible from the Day of the Dead website on MexicoConnect. This is also an excellent way to engage students who are bilingual or who may be studying Spanish.
1-2 class periods