There’s a ton of information out there about the Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead. And there are piles of materials, resources, and even a fictional movie. But what’s fact and what’s fiction? One of the best ways to discover the truth is to dig into primary resources or to experience the event for yourself. This is especially true in the current environment where so many of us are learning virtually. Below we’ve linked to incredible free digital resources for the Day of the Dead, better known as Día de Muertos or Día de los Muertos, as well as lots of fantastic virtual learning opportunities.
The Value of Primary Resources
Before we get started, a quick note. A lot of what we generally study from is actually considered secondary–resources like textbooks or documentaries from outside sources. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with using secondary resources from trusted, reputable sources. But, giving students access to primary resources and experiences adds value to their learning in ways that secondary resources simply cannot.
This is especially true of celebrations like the Day of the Dead, where fictionalized accounts and the cacophony of voices can add a patina of mental mythology to something that is very real and important to many people.
So, why study an advertisement that is 100 years old? A picture that is 50? A Google panoramic shot from a few years ago? Why attend a virtual event?
First, investigating the people that were or are there and consider themselves members of the cultural community being studied generally provides more accurate, valuable information than things that are talked about or commented on by people outside the event and/or community.
Primary resources illuminate beliefs, in this case about life and death, which are connected to Día de Muertos
Humanize and Contextualize History
Second, primary resources can humanize history and demonstrate the passage of time, in this case the ways that a celebration may have changed or been commercialized. Third, primary resources help us connect holidays and celebrations, such as the Day of the Dead, to broader culture and history. After all, el Día de Muertos is one day connected to many others where culture and history are experienced and recorded.
Experience Versus Observation
Finally, studying primary resources is, to use an imperfect analogy, a bit like the difference between reading a book versus reading someone else’s opinion about a book. The experiences are vastly different, which has important implications for retention and learning.
Not sure how to help students wrap their brains around the idea of primary resources? For the 1-5 grade crowd, try this interactive video from KidCitizen (a website funded by grant by the Library of Congress). For older students, try this video.
Don’t know anything about Día de Muertos? Never fear! We’ve also included secondary resources in the below Day of the Dead digital resources lists. That way, if you aren’t familiar with something or just want to start learners off with background content, the information is there for you. On to the resources!
José Guadalupe Posada Aguilar, who died in 1913, was a prolific Mexican artist and satirist. Much of his work has little direct connection to the Day of the Dead. However, there are some exceptions. The paramount example is La Calavera Garbancera or La Catrina (pictured). When studying Día de muertos, examining La Catrina and the history before and after Posada illustrated her, is a must.
Resources for La Calavera Garbancera (La Catrina)
- Primary Resource: High-quality digital image of original
- Secondary Resource: Cultural outline from National Geographic (HS and beyond)
- Secondary Resource: Very short explanation from New York Latin Culture Magazine
- Video Secondary Resource: Wordless video from online newspaper Periódico El Ciudadano (requires some background knowledge)
Your learners who are artistically inclined or who love things like marketing and graphic design will be mesmerized by Posada’s visuals, especially when they see that most were published one-hundred years or more ago. Hook those students with his art in the links below.
Other Posada Resources
Below you will find links to high-quality digital copies of just a tiny portion of Posada’s other famous works (i.e., other primary resources), which are mostly not directly connected to the Day of the Dead. There are so many possible projects that could come from these. If you think of some or use them in your classroom or home learning, we’d love to hear about it in the comments below.
Marigolds are symbolic and widely-used in Day of the Dead celebrations
Google-Hosted Resources and Exhibits
Google Arts and Culture hosts high-quality, themed online exhibits and “stories” about many topics. One of the most colorful and interesting of these online exhibits is that of the Day of the Dead. You can explore the entire Google-hosted Day of the Dead theme, or check out some of the specific exhibits below.
Museo de Arte Popular
This is an online collection by the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City, Mexico, hosted by Google. The collection is broken into four “story” categories:
- Monumental Skeletons
- Inspired by Nature: Mexican Dresses
- The Ofrenda of the Day of the Dead
- Death in Popular Art
Each collection is visually interesting and helps learners contextualize the variances in styles and displays. As you click through, you might notice the influence of major artists and especially figures such as the above-mentioned José Posada.
The “Ofrenda of the Day of the Dead” exhibit is especially useful for virtual learning and online assignments, as it walks the audience through common elements of ofrendas or offerings.
Museo Dolores Olmedo
Google offers another virtual exhibit from the Museo Dolores Olmedo in Mexico City, Mexico. Entitled simply “Day of the Dead,” the interactive exhibit walks viewers through the history of Día de Muertos, including its pre-Columbian roots. Posada also makes an appearance in this exhibit.
Because of the nature of information-keeping and archiving, some resources of interest are stored by themselves or exist as small parts of larger collections. Digitization of resources is slowly revealing new digital Day of the Dead resources, such as the below photo.
Entitled “Mexican Cemetery near San Juan Capistrano . . .,” Bob Smith took the photo in November of 1972 for the Environmental Protection Agency. This single image is just one of thousands in the Documerica Project, a project designed to photographically document pollution, landscape changes, urban blight, and more in the United States of America.
For teachers and instructors, the origin of the photo, its place in a photodocumentary project related to pollution, its year and location, etc., all form opportunities for students to perform deep-level thinking and exploration of topics that build cross-curriculum connections.
2020 Virtual and In-Person Learning Opportunities
In 2020, many museums are hosting online exhibits, parties, and meetings. Below are some free virtual events:
- National Museum of Mexican Art
- Mexican American Cultural Center
- Encinitas Friends of the Arts
- Smithsonian Museums
In some areas, there are also free in-person Day of the Dead-related experiences. For example, the Memphis Brooks Museum is hosting a parade. Check your local libraries and museums to see if there is an event of interest in your area.
Know of another free event? Have a resource to share? Let us know in the comments below or contact us here. We can’t wait to hear from you!
Nothing in this blog should be considered legal advice. This blog is for informational purposes only. It is up to individuals to ensure compliance with copyright laws in their jurisdictions. Note especially that, as of the publication of this blog post, Mexico has the longest copyright duration in the world, so extra care should be taken with resources from Mexico.
In the United States, there are generous “fair use” exceptions to copyright law, but it is beyond the scope of this website to explain, interpret, or outline them. If you are an educator, home instructor, or other member of the education community, there are lots of resources available to help you interpret and understand fair use. Thank you for all you do to teach, nurture, and help students!