Dia de los Muertos. In Spanish, it means Day of the Dead.
A morbid-sounding event, perhaps, but Dia de los Muertos is a happy occasionone
in which gifts are made for relatives who have passed away, and their
lives are celebrated. It is a way to reconnect with departed family members.
Its a holiday, Nov. 1, celebrated in Mexico and parts of Central
America and the United States that carries a great deal of meaning at
Cary Reynolds Elementary School in Doraville. And its one that the
Emory community was able to help celebrate.
This past April, the Institute for Comparative and International Studies
(ICIS) began a partnership with Cary Reynolds Elementary, representing
the first major outreach effort under the institutes Community Connections
Initiative (CCI), which came together last April.
The core of the ICIS/Cary Reynolds partnership is a series of arts and
cultural programs held in the school cafeteria. Emory faculty, staff and
students all participate in the events, which are meant to enhance language
skills and introduce and celebrate the worlds varied cultures in
a fun setting.
The partnership was conceived as a way for returning study-abroad
students to learn new skills as well as keep their skills current, connect
with the international community here in Atlanta and explore its research
and academic possibilities, said Alta Schwartz, ICIS outreach coordinator.
The centerpiece of the most recent Dia de los Muertos celebration was
the construction of an altar in the cafeteria, which took on added meaning
as it was dedicated not only to departed family members but to the victims
of Sept. 11. Kindergartners and first-graders drew pictures and made paper
flowers, earthenware figures and other crafts to place either on or in
front of the altar, which was displayed for several days after the event
so the entire school could learn about its meaning.
The Emory contingent taking part included Schwartz; Dana Tottenham, CIPAs
coordinator of academic services; Jackie Ochoa-Giddens of Latin American
and Caribbean Studies; two faculty members, Vialla Hartfield-Mendez (Spanish)
and Walter Escobar (biology); and several students.
While there was a serious and reverent tone to the proceedings, the focus
remained on fun.
They were very happy to have us there, Escobar said. There
was really no shyness. The kids offered information about themselves and
they were very playful. It was a happy event.
And the joy was not exclusive to the Spanish-speaking children. Escobar
said he spoke with one child of Asian background, he told her about the
holiday and even taught her a few Spanish words.
The children who spoke Spanish were so proud to have this event,
Schwartz said. They were excited to have Americans come and speak
their language. They were excited that a ritual that they were used to
was being taught to the whole school.
The Dia de los Muertos celebration was the second of the school year.
The first came on Oct. 1, when the school celebrated the Muslim holy month
of Ramadan. Aimed at fourth- and fifth-graders, the celebration included
an art project in which students made paper prayer rugs. Mahmoud Al-Batal,
associate professor of Middle Eastern studies, also spoke to the students
about growing up in Lebanon.
Future events are planned to celebrate the Vietnamese holiday of Tet in
January and the Hindu holiday Holi in March. ICIS will host a pair of
appreciation receptions for Cary Reynolds staffone later this month
and a second in the springin the Jones Room of Woodruff Library.
The effort was spearheaded by former assistant director Jeff Reznick.
ICIS had a strong background in volunteer work with children at Egleston
Childrens Hospital, and Reznick wanted to strengthen its ties with
the Atlanta international community, particularly its school-age children.
He and Colleen Medina, coordinator of academic services for the Center
for International Programs Abroad (CIPA), performed a needs assessment
of DeKalb County public schools and found Cary Reynolds, to be the most
diverse elementary school in the state.
According to 2000 statistics, more than 80 percent of the Doraville elementarys
students speak English as a second language, and many students speak no
English at all. A majority of these children, about 65 percent, speak
Spanish. A total of 30 different languages are represented, including
Chinese, Somali, Serbo-Croatian, Farsi and many others.
Schools have to hunt for their own resources, said Principal
Jeffrey Rutel. Weve received incredible support from Emory.
And this is not about dollars its about people power, and Emory
has been wonderful.