Today Hispanic communities begin Dia de Los Muertos celebrations to remember with joy — not grief — their family members who have died. A team of teachers from Chicago’s Little Village community are striving to help their elementary students remember their Latinx heritage year-round with the help of a Fund for Teachers fellowship.
This summer Vanessa Viruet, Elizabeth Morales and Natalie Blondis Krzeminski (Spry Elementary used their $10,000 Fund for Teachers grant to document Mexican and Belizean cultural and historic sites to educate students on Afro-Mexican and Indigenous culture and counteract the negative impact that Mexican hegemony can have on students from these regions.
“Our school is located in a predominantly Mexican-American community in Chicago. Most of our student population is Latinx, yet we only celebrate our students during Mexican Independence Day with a school wide parade.,” wrote the teachers in their 2022 grant proposal. “The overt and covert racism through xenophobia that is felt has an impact on our student’s self-image, self-worth, and appreciation for their cultural upbringing. Many of our students combat societal pressure to assimilate and distance themselves from their native language and culture. As educators we must counter these direct and indirect attacks on our students’ communities, empower them, demonstrate to them that we do not place limitations on their capabilities due to their culture.”
Their fellowship included experiencing:
- Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology (pictured right), which contains the largest collection of ancient Mexican art;
- La Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo’s home and now musuem;
- Teotihuacan, the site where one of the largest empires of the pre-Columbian Americas flourished;
- the Mayan World Museum in Merida, along with a re-enactment of the ancient game Pok Ta Pok and local artisan markets; and
- the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave was known as “Cave of the Stone Sepulcher” which had an immense spiritual significance to the Mayans, and it is evidence that Belize was once one of the major hubs of the Mayan Empire during Mesoamerican times.
“Through this experience, I learned that I am missing this connection to my own ancestors and history,” said Vanessa. “As Latinos, we have assimilated to American identity and lost touch with our roots. It is incredibly important to pass down traditions, healing practices, art, recipes and stories and to my students and my children.”
They will do this through a unit that explores pre-Colombian cultures through pottery and other art mediums, as well as creating a Latin Culture Night which will draw in talent and resources from the surrounding school community. A new storytelling unit will incorporate parents’ participation and invite them to share memories related to their upbringing. and they will put forth their best effort.
“My new Social Studies unit on Native American history in North America focuses on the importance of storytelling and how elders in native communities passed down knowledge, history, life skills, and entertained through storytelling,” added Elizabeth. “Students’ upcoming project will require students to ask an elder in their family to share an important story that was passed down to them from their grandparents or parents. Students will either retell their story through writing or draw a sequence of images depicting the story and then showcase these with the class.”
“Our goal through this fellowship is to teach in a culturally-responsive way that will help our students to feel stimulated and connected to what they are learning by having more opportunity to discover where they come from and their birth culture. When students feel an emotional connection to their learning it breeds creativity.”
We honor all celebrating those who have passed on by remembering their legacy, and also honor those (like these Fellows) committed to enriching the present and future of their students with an awareness of their past.
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