El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) begins this Friday and ends on Saturday. For those of us gringos who no habla espanol, it is easy to dismiss the holiday as something they do over in Cicero.
To my surprise, however, the U.S Census revealed that one out of every ten of us here in Forest Park identify themselves as Hispanic and almost 16 percent of the students in our middle school trace their heritage back to south of the border.
A few years ago I spent a week driving Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and I discovered how much I didn’t know. For one thing, I never saw a taco stand. Yucatan cooking is quite different than the Tex-Mex cuisine we are used to here. One of the featured items on Yucatan menus, for example, is turkey!
Another thing I learned was that the Mayan Civilization in that part of Mexico was at its sophisticated height when my European ancestors were mucking around culture wise in the Dark Ages. Here’s what National Geographic Online says about one of the archaeological sites I visited. “The brilliant ruins of Chichén Itzá evidence a dazzling ancient city that once centered the Maya empire in Central America. The stepped pyramids, temples, columned arcades, and other stone structures of Chichén Itzá were sacred to the Maya and a sophisticated urban center of their empire from A.D. 750 to 1200.”
As you can tell, I am pushing for us to welcome our Hispanic neighbors to our village as an opportunity. While I applaud our historical society for the great job they do preserving our up-until-lately German and before that Native American heritage, we also need to see where this community seems to be heading and find ways to maximize the benefits that can accrue.
One person who is contributing to a greater appreciation of Hispanic culture is a teacher at the Forest Park Middle School.
Christine Haase is the Spanish teacher at Forest Park Middle School. As a part of her class, she teaches a mini unit each year on Day of the Dead. Students are introduced to the topic in general in sixth grade, learn specifically about the holiday in Mexico in seventh grade, and then for a contrast they look at Guatemala’s interpretation of the holiday in 8th grade, she said.
Students have created calacas (skeletons), drawn intricate pictures of calaveras (skulls), and made paper cempasúchil (marigold) flowers. Students have also created a digital ofrenda, decorated calaveras de azucar (sugar skulls), written a travel article about Guatemala’s Day of the Dead celebration (focusing on the giant kite festival and offerings made to the heavens by shamans). Haase also takes her students on a field trip to the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen for their annual Day of the Dead exhibit.
I like the fact that the Review is juxtaposing news about the Des Plaines River Anthology with a story about El Dia de los Muertos. A little bit of the past along with a dose of the future. It’s good to look in the rear view mirror to appreciate where we’ve come from, but we’re not going to make progress in this town without looking through the windshield to what lies ahead. Another chapter in the great American story of where we’ve all come from and where we are going.
Here’s a joke that puts a light touch on what I’m trying to say. A kid named Nguyen emigrated with his family several years ago from Viet Nam to southern California. After he’d been in school for a month, his teacher asked him how he was doing. He thought for a moment and replied that he was doing pretty well but that he wished he had a name that sounded more American than Nguyen.
“Like what?” asked his teacher.
“Oh,” the boy answered, “Something like Carlos or Roberto.”
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Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.