Friday, November 7, 2014

This week in Immersive learning: Día de los Muertos

Well, we survived Halloween, and now our efforts have willingly shifted to Día de los Muertos.  Since this is a holiday that is very meaningful to a culture that no one in our immediate family was raised in, I have wanted to be very careful and respectful of how we delve in.  

After my mom died, our whole family was really sort of struggling to...connect, somehow, to her, and to the reality of her passing.  The culture in which most of my family was raised doesn't leave a whole lot of room for discussion of death or mourning - other than expecting to be on the receiving end of countless casseroles, jello salads, and prayers. So, in this time of need, when our friends from other cultures shared with us their customs and traditions around mourning, it really, really helped us to understand what we were experiencing, and gave us little windows into ways that we could find that connection we were craving.  For whatever reason, we all found the act of building an altar for Día de los Muertos to be a particularly appealing and attainable source of comfort, and we decided that this year, we would honor Mom in that spirit.

However, despite the many un-waspy elements of my upbringing and current life, I cannot pretend that I am anything other than a privileged, white woman (dude, I'm even blonde) from a historically christian family.  In moving towards accepting these wonderful traditions into my own experience, I am all too aware that I could easily fall prey to cultural appropriation, which is not at all something I wish to participate in.  To that end, I want to be careful, especially since I am sharing all that I do with my children, and I wish to impress upon them a sense of cultural sensitivity along with open minds and hearts, so that they may be cautious and respectful as they learn, understand, and embrace the various cultures they will come into contact with in their lives. I do not want to just superficially pluck aspects of other cultures that I find appealing and apply them like stickers to my own life in a way that does not stretch my understanding or bring with it the deeper implications and meaning from which the tradition was born.  I believe that understanding the underlying meaning is crucial to avoiding a disrespectful act of cultural appropriation.

A big part of that, for me, is making sure to seek out stories and information from people for whom it is an inherent cultural norm.  Thankfully, we live in an area rich in diversity and easy access to all sorts of information - including cross-cultural educational opportunities.   Wonderfully for us, the National Museum of the American Indian hosted some special events this week in honor of the holiday, which allowed us to do just that.  

a somewhat obstructed view of the altar at the National Museum of the American Indian
Unfortunately I had to work, but James was able to take the kids.  It featured tidbits about how various indigenous cultures view the holiday, and explored different traditions that they hold, many of which contribute to its current popular form.  They saw some performances, some very interesting displays, heard some neat speakers...it was a wonderful and informative experience for the kids. (Though James admittedly wasn't sure how much they got out of it, since they mostly wanted to go play the quiz game in the kids' section that they flock to like moths to a flame.)

Performers at the museum


Calliope found this all very intriguing



In another attempt at learning more about it, we decided to attend a día de los muertos event at the national harbor...this, however, was a spectacular failure.  So much so that, having driven separately and arriving first, Kelly and I sent James and the kids home before they had even parked.   It was one of the most egregious examples of cultural appropriation I have personally encountered in a while, and I found it wholly disheartening.  They did have an altar in one corner of a tent, but that was more or less it as far as 'authenticity' went.  It basically seemed like it was a giant excuse for a bunch of mostly white people to drink beer.  They had a mariachi band in the smaller tent, but they also had a laser-laden DJ in the giant "main event" tent, with the bass turned up, blasting pop dance tunes and drowning everything else out. The main tent itself consisted of little more than the beer-covered bar, the dance floor, and a faceprinting station where you could choose a generic sugar-skull look from the menu...It was a far cry from the celebratory embracing of customs from a different culture that we were seeking, and was, in fact, a mere bastardization of them by a bunch of idiots hiding behind cardboard gravestones.

marigolds and decorative skulls, with a few gourds, some garlic, and a pineapple thrown in
other than the presence of the above altar and this, there wasn't much to distinguish this from any other halloween kegger.

Anyway, in explaining why we had sent them away and hadn't stayed ourselves, we touched on a lot of these themes of respect and appropriation and the like...and I am sure this will not be the last conversation that we have on these topics.  I'll get back to what we ended up doing for the day of the dead at the end of this post, but for now I want to move on because we did so much this week! 

Halloween now over, we decided to use our jack-o-lanterns for some chemistry experiments. Doing some research, we found that many household substances will burn with different colors, or different intensities, and that with different methods you could control the strength and duration of a certain burn.  So, we assembled some of them, and trekked across the street to our friend Muriah's fire pit.  

First up, we coated one of the pumpkins in borax (not to be confused with boric acid-different substance) and then decided to start with the high flame lantern...we used a role of toilet paper stuffed inside the pumpkin and soaked in kerosene to produce huge, long lasting flames.  

Before the inferno

Big fire in that pumpkin

Seriously high flames from this sucker

Basking in the pumpkin firelight 

Yup. Serious flame.
The "flame thrower" effect ended up being much more contained than I had expected it to be, and the borax didn't really come into contact with the flames, so it didn't burn.  Next, we added some sparklers to make it extra...sparkly.

sparky jack-o-lantern!
Once the big pyrotechnics were done, we decided to add some logs and change the burn environment so that we could try some of the other substances we had lined up.  While we had initially intended to do these one at a time, in made more sense to combine them, and we ended up with a pretty cool range of colors thanks to the borax and hand sanitizer we applied to the exterior surface of the pumpkin.

Purple, green, and blue flames

Green, blue, and purple flames around the central yellow flame

such cool colors!
It was pretty cool talking about why the flames were different colors, and why "fire" isn't just "fire" that is always the same...it's a chemical process and will be different depending on what substance is being 'processed'...hence why the flames produced by a familiar fuel (kerosene, wood) were in familiar "fire" colors, but the unusual substances we added in burned in different hues.  And the sparklers, while not a novel color, do produce a novel kind of fire because of the materials involved and how they are constructed.

Moving on, this week also saw election day!

The kids observed that voting must be important, if there were dedicated parking spots for people coming to cast their votes, and hypothesized that perhaps these permanent signs were posted in part to remind people of how important it was.  While I am not sure how we could test that particular hypothesis, I did find the thought behind it quite intuitive and thoughtful.


We have light civics lessons often, as we talk about things that we hear on the radio or read from a news site, so this was not a new concept, but was certainly still exciting.  Cadence was especially excited...she remembers the last presidential election and seemed to really enjoy learning about the way our government is set up, how it functions, and how it sometimes...doesn't. (Though last year's furlough was a better example of that...)

The folks running were THRILLED to have these three come, and they got lots of attention and different folks explaining different parts of the process to them.  I take it that not many kids accompany their caregivers on this important task, so people were pleased to be able to inspire excitement about the importance of actually showing up and voting.  They even got 'I voted' stickers as a bonus...

They seemed to have fun, even if they were a bit shy!
Also this week:  DIY balloon weight!  Pretty clever.

I'm not sure if their is still play dough in there or if it was replaced with rocks.  Can't open it to confirm!
And of course, we got in our usual kinetic awesomeness, too!
Callie loves silks!
Even at home, these kids love practicing their planks.

They can hold these for, like, ever.
So, let's dive into the creation of our Día de los Muertos altar...

We wanted to turn our paper maché skulls into proper 'calaveras' for the altar. We prepped them by painting them with a white base coat, and once that dried, the kids got busy painting their calaveras...they were aiming for the colorful and inviting representations they had come across in their research.
it begins...
Cadence took a meticulous approach
Calliope went for as much color as possible
Hazel aimed to make it personal
Calliope was surprisingly into this task and spent a really long time painting it...and painting it...and painting it...we couldn't pull her away...it took her skull the longest time to dry, but even when it was done I loved that she regarded the colors that had been layered over many times as just as much a part of the work as the visible top layer.  She would point to a spot and talk about how there was pink and blue and then green underneath, and on top it was purple and gray.  It actually made me think about the way our bodies are constructed, with so much happening below the surface, and yet it still all goes into making us what we are.

Kelly was determined to make sugar skulls, and so we did a lot of research and decided to give it a go.  They are meant to symbolize vitality and celebrate life, which was very much what mom always did, so we had to include one somehow. We found several recipes, and it seemed...doable, but we needed a mold.  We tried ridiculously hard to find sugar skull molds, but evidently it is hard to come by them last minute.  [EDIT TO NOTE: we didn't think to look in the gift shop at the museum...but they have an entire wall of them, even off season.] I did find two potentially useable skull-shaped things on clearance at an upscale kitchen store:  we could go with a big, heavy cake pan, or an ice mold.

Kelly really took the reins on this one, and while we certainly broke with convention, she put a lot of work into making it happen.  Somehow, with zero time left, she combined marshmallows and sugar into a sort of sticky, mold-able mush, and was able to use the ice mold to get it into the proper shape. It was really quite impressive.

in progress
kelly holds up the finished skull to show the kids. ready for decorating!
The next step was to paint it. In the spirit of making everything on the altar as personally meaningful as possible, we decided to make our own paints (dyes?  They were something in between, I think.) out of foods that held significance for mom...like using the good hungarian paprika she liked to make a red color, and the good mexican vanilla she treasured to make brown.  Turmeric for yellow, something she took on later as a cancer-fighting measure, I believe, but she took to it.  I used toothpicks to paint on patterns...it 'mostly' worked. We gave it a star anise headdress, a nod to her love of black licorice.

The colors ran before I got a good pic, but for an untrained first attempt, I think this wasn't too bad.
We put it on a plate along with some of her other favorite foods; oreos, clementines, twirlers and peanut butter cups accompanied an old family favorite, a remarkably fussy dish our family refers to as "Spotzen"...a kind of boiled potato and breadcrumb dumpling, served with pork loin and a gravy made from the meat's juices...it takes forever to make and falls apart in the boiling water if you don't do it just right.  We chose the three best-looking spotzen for Mom's altar, but they were still sort of pitiful to behold.  Mom would have been proud of us anyway. 

Hope you enjoyed the meal, Mama!
We put that on the mantle over the fireplace, which the kids had decorated with "papel picados" - lacy paper creations traditionally used to represent fragility of life - which they rather cleverly made by hand-coloring old computer paper hole strips...though they didn't quite evoke the same sweeping loops we saw in our research, we felt pretty confident that Nana would be so proud of their work that it was a lovely personal touch to the altar. We fleshed out our 'ofrenda' from there...

Traditional altars have several elements, but there is no specific rules for how this needs to play out.  The most important thing is to make it personal to the spirits you hope to honor, and offer them food, salt, and water to wash in and drink.  There are usually many levels (which we did our best to incorporate by using 5 different surfaces at varying heights around the fireplace).  They should incorporate photos and items that held special meaning for the deceased, and flowers to represent the fleeting beauty of life -there are some types that are usually used, most famously marigolds...we couldn't get marigolds, but Kelly (who is working on a flower farm) gathered many special flowers each with their own significance (and fragrance). Fruits can be used to represent mother earth.

Calliope's finished skull mask, some of mom's rings, mini pumpkins and that fabulous photo of mom & the kids...
We learned that you should leave out towels and water, so that your loved one may freshen up after the long journey back from the afterlife.  Kelly decided (rightly) that mom deserved a spa more than a washrag. Her spa level was wondrously calming and inviting.

Mom on plum island in the photo.
Other traditional elements are candles (to light their way), salt, and incense or other fragrant elements...we opted for scented candles to give varying scents as well as lighting the way. We did also have some actual incense as well, though.

Photo of Mom, Kelly & I at my high school graduation
This level was one Kelly put out for our dearly departed pets.  I wanted to include so many more than we were able to represent, but I held them in my heart as we put out the food and bones for our wonderful and deeply missed critters. 
Cinnamon and Jewels and Puppalina make appearances
You may have noticed the skull in the photo above...it definitely doesn't follow the friendly skeleton ideal of traditional calaveras, but we decided to include it because that thing has become a running joke ever since I made it in my SFX class in college.  everyone in the family loved to freak each other out by hiding it, or adorning it with some strange costume or other...it was a lovely nod to the humor in our family.

The message mom left me and Cadence's completed calavera

Hazel's finished calavera and mom's wooden buddha! 
So, this is a (rather poor) shot of our completed Ofrenda.  There are more details than I have gone into here (like the beach towel on the lower level, the cheesy "mom" trinket holding up papel picados, the details on the flowers and all the intricate nuanced elements of each level...) suffice it to say, it was a thorough project, made with so very much love.  I think we were all very glad to share this process and this event.

our Ofrenda
Heartbreakingly, after all of this was said and done, we suffered another loss.  Our Country kitty Jewels went to join mom a few days ago.  She had been living with chronic renal failure, and had a peaceful release after what sounds like a beautiful evening with Dad...of course all of our hearts ache anew, there has been so much loss this year...Maybe she went off with mom after her Día de los Muertos visit. A bit too on-topic, if you ask me; but that is life, and I am glad to be able to help my kids figure out how to navigate it, even if the process is often terribly painful.

Mom, Jewels, we love and miss you so...So glad to have shared this life with you both.  Now it's time for me to go make sure we are making the most of the precious time we have left...who knows what new adventures lie in store.