Day of the Dead issue haunting public schools

Sunday, October 18, 1998

The long procession honoring the dead winds down the hall, filling the building with the beating of drums and the smell of incense. The pageant stops along the way, allowing participants to explain the meaning of the event to onlookers.

Where's this taking place? If you guessed a local church or perhaps a temple of some kind, you're wrong. It's in a southern California public school where students are celebrating the Day of the Dead.

Welcome to the newest addition to the list of holidays most likely to cause conflict in public schools — Halloween, Christmas and now the Day of the Dead.

With the rapidly expanding Mexican-American population in the United States, the Day of the Dead (El Dia de los Muertos)-long one of Mexico's most popular holidays-has become part of the American landscape. This is especially true in school districts in Texas, California and other states with large numbers of Mexican-American students.

Figuring out how to treat the Day of the Dead in a public school isn't easy, because the holiday has a little bit of everything. Its origins may be traced back to Aztec festivals dedicated to remembering the dead. After the Spanish defeat of the Aztecs, the tradition was incorporated into Christian celebrations of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day-days dedicated to the memory of saints, martyrs and other departed souls.

Now, every Nov. 2, Mexicans honor the dead with various festivities and practices, including visits to gravesites, erection of special altars with offerings for the departed souls, and celebrations with special foods and songs.

Is this a religious holiday that can't be celebrated in a public school because it promotes religion, therefore violating the First Amendment? Or is it primarily a cultural festival that should be allowed?

In some ways, this controversy parallels the conflict over Halloween. Much like the Day of the Dead, Halloween grew out of the marriage of the Christian All Saints' Day with a pre-Christian festival (Celtic in this case) marking the return of the souls of the dead to their homes. Some Christians now find this blending of pagan and Christian beliefs-especially the images of demons, ghosts, and witches-to be offensive to their faith and inappropriate in public schools.

The difference is that Halloween has become a secular holiday, while the Day of the Dead is still infused with religious images and ideas. In response to parental complaints, schools may choose to tone down or even eliminate Halloween, or to provide alternative activities such as Harvest Festivals. But it's unlikely that a court will find a public school in violation of the First Amendment for allowing Halloween parties and activities.

In contrast to the secular Halloween, schools can hardly avoid the religious meanings associated with the Day of the Dead. For example, the altars with offerings for the dead usually include a cross or crucifix and holy images. And many parents are likely to be disturbed by celebrations involving the spirits of departed ancestors.

What should schools do? It wouldn't seem fair or reasonable to ignore the Day of the Dead, especially in districts with many Mexican-American students.

A better solution is to remember the legal bright line between teaching about religious holidays, which is permissible under the First Amendment, and celebrating a religious holiday, which isn't.

What does this mean for the Day of the Dead holiday? Teachers may teach about the meaning of the holiday for Mexican Catholics and its role in Mexican culture. Displays about the holiday are fine if they are focused on what students are learning in class. Kids might also taste the foods, see the face masks and other art and hear the music associated with the celebration. All of this, of course, must be age-appropriate.

Reenactments, however, including processions with music and incense, aren't a good idea. They risk involving kids in a religious activity, and they risk trivializing a practice or event that is sacred within a particular religious tradition.

As educational (and fun) as role-playing might be for students, these activities may cross the line between learning about the holiday and participating in a religious celebration. Alternatives to role-playing-though less “hands-on”-include showing a video or inviting a guest speaker.

The key is this: If a school district decides to make the Day of the Dead part of the public-school curriculum, the purpose must be education, not celebration.

To help ensure that all parents know about the constitutional guidelines for handling this and other religious issues in public schools, the First Amendment Center and the National PTA have just released the Spanish-language version of “A Parent's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools.” Free copies are available in Spanish and English from the First Amendment Center (615/321-9588).