For their annual Dia de los Muertos Ofrenda tradition, two teachers at Longfellow Elementary School use monarchs, the Illinois state butterfly, to represent and honor spirits of loved ones who have died. As students celebrate the Day of the Dead, they also learning about the borderless nature of the monarchs’ migration.
An ofrenda is a home altar created by family members or community to welcome the deceased. Longfellow Spanish teacher Liza Marinelarena and Art Teacher Jennifer Raia began taking part in this tradition in 2020, when it was created by Oak Park resident Alma Martinez as a means of bringing together people who were experiencing loss and separation.
“I wanted to create something that united the community in the midst of the pandemic,” Martinez said.
This year 31 people across Oak Park registered via Google to create their own altar, and individuals from surrounding suburbs and even Mexico came to visit and see the ofrendas. The locations were marked on a Google Map.
Throughout the month of October leading up to Dia De Los Muertos, Marinelarena taught her kindergarten through fifth grade classes about the holiday’s cultural origins. Her students brought photos or objects to remind them of loved ones to be placed on the ofrenda, surrounded by other traditional elements, such as sugar skulls and marigolds.
The ofrenda is open to the entire school, including family and faculty and allows students to feel represented.
“I feel like the Hispanic students needed to see their culture represented in Oak Park,” Marinelarena said.
Behind the ofrenda is a window display Raia created with her third-grade class. She produced a giant monarch butterfly and her students made smaller butterflies to surround it using a wax transfer technique; then they painted the body using watercolor washes.
After cutting it out and adding antennas, Raia’s students wrote a “hopeful” messages hidden in the line drawing of the wings. As her third-graders make butterflies, they also learn about artists who use the symbolism of monarch butterflies to portray migration through their art.
“This is an opportunity in the art room to talk about a serious topic in a way that’s really relevant to children,” Raia said. “[Students] see the monarchs in their yards, and … they’ve studied the life cycle in their science classes, [so] they already have this connection.”
Her students know that former President Donald Trump had plans to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico to prevent immigrants from entering the U.S., and learning about the migration patterns of butterflies and its symbolism in art has shown Raia’s students that for butterflies, there are no walls. Migration patterns, and how they are affected by climate change is another topic Raia brings up in class.
“There are no borders in the natural world,” she said.
Marinelarena has connected her second-graders with second-graders in Mexico by participating in the “Symbolic Monarch Migration.” Her second-graders make butterflies to send to Mexico for the winter and students in Mexico send them butterflies back.
“The whole part of the project is building communication between Mexico, the U.S. and Canada,” she said.
Marinelarena said the Dia De Los Muertos tradition at Longfellow increases visibility for Hispanic students who are the minority in Oak Park, and that representation plays a major part in a student’s growth and feeling of acceptance.
Changing the learning environment in Raia’s classroom to reflect her students’ heritage and their experiences empowers them to feel like they have a voice, she said. To feel successful in school, a learning environment needs to manifest belonging, and in her classroom that starts with sharing stories and backgrounds of artists similar to her students.
“Oak Park is a very diverse community, and [this tradition] has educated people of different races on how Mexican culture celebrates and honors their ancestors,” Martinez said.