Appropriate to have a Dia de los Muertos at a mostly white school?
May 10, 2018 2:56 PM   Subscribe

Mother (who's African) wants to do Dia de los Muertos celebration at mostly white elementary school. PTA chair says it's insensitive to celebrate a culture we don't understand (there are a few Hispanic and other minority kids but again mostly white non-immigrants) Is it truly insensitive or is this more a concern of optics, and either way how to proceed?
posted by angrybear to Education (33 answers total)
Could you reach out to a local Hispanic Church? They might have ideas on how to share the holiday in an appropriate way. And if they say no, perhaps it shouldn’t be pursued.
posted by raccoon409 at 3:11 PM on May 10, 2018 [6 favorites]

PTA chair says it's insensitive to celebrate a culture we don't understand...

What is there to understand? Cultural holiday celebrations do not require advanced degrees to comprehend, and it's a school which is where people learn and understand new things, so this argument is stupid.

As a teacher, there are ways to do this that are appropriate and educational, and there are ways to do this that are offensive. This article from Colorincolorado, offers guidelines about ways to do all different celebrations well. This can be a great learning experience for everyone if done right.

Some ideas:

Incorporate the information you select into existing lesson plans or special projects. Don't miss out on the opportunity to make this into an ongoing process for learning. One great source of information is children's books, which often have background information and activities, such as these titles about Ramadan, Chinese New Year, and Día de los muertos.

Make it more than just about food, music, or popular icons. It is best to precede these type of events or approaches with meaningful and thoughtful pre-planned lessons, information, and learning. There is more to St. Patrick's Day than wearing green and pinning up images of leprechauns — turn the holiday into an opportunity to learn about the Irish people and their history.

Seek various representatives to show the diversity within a common group. Keep in mind that no one group is as homogenous as it might seem. To illustrate, Latinos may share the same language and have very similar customs but there are many cultural differences between countries — for example, only Mexicans celebrate Cinco de Mayo; Argentinians, on the other hand, will most likely have never heard of the celebration or know what it stands for, and will celebrate different holidays.

Plan ahead of time. Don't wait until the day of the celebration or designated month to bring up the subject. If the topic at hand involves a heritage group represented in your classroom, consult with the student and their families about your plans, and find out if they are interested in and comfortable sharing stories, traditions, or family history. Ask them for suggestions and ideas.

Encourage other children who may not have "official" holidays representing them or whose families have lived in the U.S. for multiple generations to explore and share their own heritage and background.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 3:14 PM on May 10, 2018 [21 favorites]

I'm not Hispanic, but it seems sort of weird to me to do a celebration of this particular holiday for no reason in particular? The fact that you don't mention any particular context makes it seem as if it's being celebrated for aesthetic reasons, or because it's 'cool,' which is inappropriate in my opinion. It would be acceptable as part of a broader unit about holidays around the world. Or about cultural approaches to death, but that doesn't seem age-appropriate.

And in general, has the school 'celebrated' other holidays beyond the obvious Thanksgiving/Halloween/Christmas? As a non-white person I would feel super weird if my school decided to randomly celebrate one of 'my' holidays after never celebrating any others.
posted by perplexion at 3:18 PM on May 10, 2018 [21 favorites]

I think learning about the holiday is fine. I think *celebrating* the holiday without the involvement of people who actually celebrate the holiday is not ok.

In case it matters, I'm Mexican-American. My family is from Mexico but does not celebrate the holiday, and *I* would feel really weird personally doing so without the input or involvement of people who do.
posted by primalux at 3:19 PM on May 10, 2018 [60 favorites]

I would look at this as an educational exercise as much as a celebration, and I would bring in people from the community who have this holiday in their cultural background (reaching out to a Hispanic church for help would be a great place to start) to help do the educating. I think this could be done well, but it would take a lot of work. It could easily be done very badly, and if you're an outsider it can be legit hard to tell the difference between respectful appreciation of another culture and insulting parody of that culture. You want insiders to help you navigate that.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 3:20 PM on May 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

I would be concerned about putting the few Hispanic kids in the weird position of being "expert" on a holiday which, as primalux and yes I said yes I will Yes point out, they might not actually observe.
posted by basalganglia at 3:26 PM on May 10, 2018 [9 favorites]

I think the reasoning behind why this mother wants to celebrate this occasion will dictate the propriety (or otherwise) of moving forward with it. Does it involve a true learning experience, and not just face painting and Mexican food? Did someone's kid watch Coco and loves it and now it's a popular thing to do? Another thing to consider for context is whether other minority cultural/ religious holidays are celebrated. Kwanzaa? Ramadan? Lunar New Year? Nowruz?
posted by Everydayville at 3:40 PM on May 10, 2018 [12 favorites]

Consider shifting the focus from celebrating to learning about it.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 3:53 PM on May 10, 2018 [10 favorites]

Learning about the holiday from a qualified teacher (so it doesn't veer into otherism) is an educational experience, **celebrating** as in performing another culture's ritual, probably poorly (whose ancestors's souls, specifically, will you be addressing? Do you really want to be opening the can of worms of dead grandparents with elementary school kids?), probably as a party theme - when Hallowe'en is *right there* already for party purposes - IS problematic and also bad optics and are you planning on overthrowing the PTA president in some sort of coup to get your way on this?

It would be better if you did not do this, unless you are able to obtain legitimate Mexican leadership (like, white people need to not be planning this) and sign-off on it. If there's a local church or cultural group having an event or doing cemetery cleanup or whatever, join in on that. Maybe right now is a good time to not toe right up to the possible limits on appropriation to determine exactly how much you can get away with, and just take a big step back on putting burdens on non-white people and their cultures right now? Why do you want to proceed if it even might be insensitive?
posted by Lyn Never at 3:56 PM on May 10, 2018 [13 favorites]

As someone who thinks people get carried away charging cultural appropriation, I think this is a weird idea. Yeah, learn about, don't celebrate.
posted by bongo_x at 4:13 PM on May 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

A Dia de los Muertos celebration would be inappropriate, in my opinion.

A teaching unit on Dia de los Muertos as a cultural unit would be far more appropriate. Discuss the symbolism, learn some Spanish words and phrases, learn the meaning behind the holiday, maybe a fun screening of the Disney movie Coco, do an art project of sugar skulls, maybe fit in some Mexican geography lessons... But an actual *celebration* put on by people who don't normally celebrate it would be more like "Mexican-holiday-themed party that won't possibly hold the same meaning for the participants as it does for the people who actually celebrate the party." An actual fake Dia de los Muertos celebration or themed party is what crosses the line into "my culture is not your costume."
posted by erst at 4:19 PM on May 10, 2018 [7 favorites]

as in performing another culture's ritual, probably poorly (whose ancestors's souls, specifically, will you be addressing? Do you really want to be opening the can of worms of dead grandparents with elementary school kids?),

This was gonna be my question. Are you going to go to a graveyard? Will the kids make altars to their dead Nanas? With no cultural support - their parents are presumably also white and may find the whole thing strange - this will probably be weird and upsetting for them.

I'm guessing the mother just wanted to paint faces and make papel picado. That's not really celebrating the holiday, though. I would pass.
posted by chainsofreedom at 4:23 PM on May 10, 2018 [12 favorites]

Is it possible that the school has banned Halloween celebrations so this would be a stand-in holiday?

I see no problem with celebrating another culture's holiday, as long as it isn't done in a mocking or offensive way. But if it is just to get around a "No Halloween!" rule, it seems a bit odd to me.
posted by tacodave at 4:26 PM on May 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

I would say that, as holidays go, DdlM is a really wonderful one to study. I'm fortunate that my kid is at a school where the majority of the students are latino, most commonly from Mesoamerica where it originated, so it is a big observance. (And was pre-Coco.) The kids make altars and write about their ancestors in class, for instance. But as a white person I would not do it unless there's enough organic support.
posted by wnissen at 4:30 PM on May 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

I think it's completely inappropriate to "celebrate" Dia de los Muertos since the tradition involves honoring and remembering dead loved ones. I think teaching the kids about this tradition and its history is appropriate.

Some holidays like American Independence Day would be fine to be celebrated in international schools. We celebrated Bastille Day in my American school and think that's fine, but turning a holiday about honoring the dead into a party for mostly white kids, seems very inappropriate to me.
posted by parakeetdog at 4:30 PM on May 10, 2018 [12 favorites]

I agree with others that learning about another culture is fine, but celebrating/observing that culture without the participants from that culture there to guide and explain the festivities is weird.

For example, I always invite have non-Jews at my Passover Seder, but am a little creeped out when I hear about various messianic groups doing their version of a Seder. And for many people Dia de Los Muertos is not a secular holiday so that's important to keep in mind.

There are other cultural holidays that occur during the October/November months. Perhaps you could make this into more of an international night and give students the chance to learn about several other cultures.
posted by brookeb at 4:38 PM on May 10, 2018 [6 favorites]

Could it be part of a series of lessons about how different cultures pay respect to their dead? The Chinese Hungry Ghost festival, for instance here. I’d be wary of making it into a ‘party’ vibe but there’s no reason students shouldn’t learn about different cultures, and participation is a valuable way of learning.
posted by modernnomad at 5:04 PM on May 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

The way you've described the idea here sounds to me like something that shouldn't be done.

Teaching about many different cultures and practices is a great idea, provided the teachers are qualified and have an appropriate attitude.
posted by Verba Volant at 6:20 PM on May 10, 2018

Contentious MetaFilter thread on a similar subject. TL;DR: cultural appropriation is a valid concern and a live wire.
posted by mwhybark at 6:32 PM on May 10, 2018

I think learning about the holiday is fine. I think *celebrating* the holiday without the involvement of people who actually celebrate the holiday is not ok.

I teach a grad student library school community engagement class and we have a whole section on how to "do holidays" within a public library setting. Especially with children, teaching them about holidays and cultures is something that is generally fine when done appropriately and a good general idea. Better to be done by someone who actually practices when at all possible.

But the fact that these may be important cultural traditions among some of your students implies, to me, that doing a "celebration" is not quite the right way to do it. I'd suggest, if you're curious, reading Raina Telgemeier's book Ghosts and then read some of the criticism people have had about it.
posted by jessamyn at 6:34 PM on May 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

This is a mom wanting a celebration, not a teacher right?

If you don't have a board policy then maybe you should table the request while you develop one. I think parents should have a way to suggest ways to bring cultures forward with a school community but I'm not sure parties are the way to do it.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:40 PM on May 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

What is there to understand? Cultural holiday celebrations do not require advanced degrees to comprehend, and it's a school which is where people learn and understand new things, so this argument is stupid.

They don't require advanced degrees to understand, but also, like--they do require some sort of cultural awareness. Like--I want to agree with primalux, my Hispanic family never celebrated this, and I find the history of it kind of interesting but I've decided that I am not in fact personally comfortable celebrating it myself precisely because I don't have any evidence of it mattering to any of the people in my family who I would generally be wanting to remember at that time of year. It's a problem for the same reason doing the same about Cinco de Mayo is a problem--Mexican holidays that white people in the US have been attempting to strip of their original meanings for the sake of a party. It is not there to be a party for white people, adults or children.

A lesson on it, especially alongside other lessons about holidays around the world, totally fine! I did a lot of reading about it and looking for media with those sorts of themes around when my dad died. But I don't celebrate it. There's a difference between knowing about a holiday and celebrating it.
posted by Sequence at 6:41 PM on May 10, 2018 [5 favorites]

Thanks for the responses. The idea was always for it to be an educational experience and I appreciate the comments about the importance of doing such a thing appropriately.
posted by angrybear at 7:07 PM on May 10, 2018

Change the focus from "celebrate" to "explore" or "discover".
posted by a humble nudibranch at 8:42 PM on May 10, 2018

I think the thing to keep in mind is that Dia de los Muertos is a holiday where people celebrate their dead loved ones and consider their own mortality. It has some very cool visual/cultural trappings but I believe at heart it is about ancestors, loss, personal mortality and the connection between the dead and the living. Maybe you could make a good set of lessons about different customs of remembrance, setting it in the larger context of "international festivals of the dead", like:

Samhain (Gaelic), All Souls Day and All Saints Day (Catholic), Dziady (Slavic), Calan Gaeaf (Welsh), Totensonntag (German), Araw ng mga Patay (Filipino), Obon (Japanese), Chuseok (Korean), Hungry Ghost Festival (China/Buddhist/Taoist), Gai Jatra (Nepalese), Yizkor/yahrzeit (Jewish), Pchum Ben (Cambodian), Pitri Paksha (Hindu), and Radonitsa (Russian Orthodox).

But, people tend to be super awkward about both death and religion in the USA so I have trouble imagining a public US elementary school dealing with this in a way that makes everyone comfortable.
posted by hungrytiger at 9:54 PM on May 10, 2018 [10 favorites]

I'm Mexican-American. Also, my family did celebrate Dia de Muertos when I was growing up.

Firstly, Dia de Muertos is not really a pan-Mexican holiday. It had been dying out in Mexico until recently and was only really celebrated still in a few regions in Mexico, one of which includes the area where my parents are from. In their case the Once Pueblos/Tzintzutzan region of Michoacan which still holds on to many rural and indigenous traditions.

I only mention this because, as others have noted above as well, it can be super-awkward to try to include Mexicans in your school or area to a tradition that is alien to them as well. Day of the Dead has now become "cool" and movies like Coco have only helped to push this tradition to the world. In some sense, the holiday is being culturally appropriated by Mexicans themselves. The Mexico city parade being a prime example. I suppose though that you could argue that they are re-appropriating it.

Incidentally, it is and is not a celebration. It is complicated. My mother tells me that she recalls the whole family heading out to the graveyard and having a nighttime picnic. There'd be a mariachi band playing and people would be laughing and goofing around. For this night, the dead were with you and it was indeed a thing to celebrate. If you see some more somber celebrations today, blame it on Catholicism.

What is there to understand? Cultural holiday celebrations do not require advanced degrees to comprehend, and it's a school which is where people learn and understand new things, so this argument is stupid.

Entire books have been written about this one holiday. It is a peculiar mix of pagan traditions and Catholicism as are so many things in Mexico. Then too Mexicans have a different attitude toward death than the US does. You don't have to be Mexican to celebrate the holiday but I do think it is reckless to also just plunge in to another culture's holiday without an understanding of what it is really about.

In any case, this "holiday" absolutely includes altars to the dead. It is not clear if the Mom here understands that or simply wants to do skeleton face painting. If its the latter and is part of some activities about holidays in other cultures then thats commendable of course. But there is an enormous difference between learning and celebration. If this isn't clear, think about the difference between learning about Ramadan and saying your students celebrated Ramadan.
posted by vacapinta at 2:34 AM on May 11, 2018 [17 favorites]

What is there to understand? Cultural holiday celebrations do not require advanced degrees to comprehend, and it's a school which is where people learn and understand new things, so this argument is stupid.

I apologize for wording this so poorly; I got hung up on the PTA response in the question who felt the kids shouldn't learn about something they don't understand. I did not mean to minimize the historical complexities behind the day and imply it's just a silly holiday.

Of course this holiday has substance and significance. I just meant that good teachers know that and can find well-crafted, culturally-appropriate lessons addressing things students do not currently understand. I mean, that's what schools do, so for a PTA person to say they should not do something for that reason misses the point of school in general.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 3:11 AM on May 11, 2018

Celebrating the holiday without any personal connection/genuine belief/cultural connections to the holiday seems to be cutting it ickily close to using the holiday as entertainment - even if it's entertainment with the purpose of "educating" the students. There are better ways to educate and learn about cultural/religious traditions without making this appropriative. Focusing on the "fun" and "celebratory" parts without the cultural and religious significance/belief seems pretty gross, and continues a very long white American tradition of picking and choosing the "fun"/"cute"/"exotic"/"cool" parts of PoC's cultures to fit a white American idea/narrative of what those cultures are like. (am not American but I come from a culture that celebrates a similar holiday involving the dead. would be quite horrified if American students did activities from that holiday for fun without actually having ancestral/familial connections or some genuine belief etc.)

Surely there are better and more ethical ways to teach students about other cultures.
posted by aielen at 3:35 AM on May 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

Just a note, as vacapinta and others point out, it's not a "Hispanic" holiday, it's a much more culturally specific holiday with roots in specific geographical areas that by no means cover the entire Spanish-speaking world. Even if there are Hispanic organizations in an area, there is no guarantee they have any history with this observance. Just wanted to be clear to approach such engagement opportunities with local organizations as a question, not an assumption.
posted by Miko at 6:24 AM on May 11, 2018

I don’t understand the context. Is this meant to be in addition to learning about other holidays/events or to replace something else as others have asked? It seems very random and odd to me unless it is part of a school year curriculum that includes educating classes about lots of other, different events as well. This particular white lady Internet stranger thinks it sounds kind of fraught and potentially difficult to pull off well.
posted by Bella Donna at 6:50 AM on May 11, 2018

Where is the upside, I guess is my question. There are so many many things it would be wonderful for white, nonimmigtant children to learn about and understand when it comes to cultures other than their own immediate culture. Somehow this particular holiday does not strike me as one of those important things but what do I know.
posted by Bella Donna at 6:53 AM on May 11, 2018

> Thanks for the responses. The idea was always for it to be an educational experience and I appreciate the comments about the importance of doing such a thing appropriately.

The Mother who suggested this and others need to understand that this goes farther than replacing the word "celebrate" with "learn about." Doing sugar skull themed crafts is not really very educational, for example.
posted by desuetude at 10:42 AM on May 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

In my opinion, "celebrating" anything like this, cultural, religious etc., has no place in public schools. I mean, pick any holiday you find inappropriate for kids and then suggest they celebrate it? Seems way wrong to me. Learning about new things is fine. Basically what lots of people have already said.
posted by Pig Tail Orchestra at 8:38 AM on May 12, 2018

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