“Once a children’s librarian, always a children’s librarian.” Children’s work is one of the great foundational pillars of our profession. Kids and their parents come into our department as explorers, looking for answers and magic in worlds that exist both in the realms of their imaginations and in their everyday lives, and leave with great products, books, and experiences that will hopefully support and expand their worldviews.
Take, for instance, holidays. Holiday celebrations play a huge role in the lives of children, and libraries play a part in providing access to things like books and crafts to help celebrate those holidays. Those crafts – hands-on, whimsical, and usually made of the simplest of things – help kids bridge the worlds between their imaginations and real life. But most of all, those crafts are fun.
I love to see the challenge, joy, and pride that goes into making a Valentine’s heart, an Easter wreath or a Mother’s Day card. Those simple crafts are built into our calendar year, and every year our young patrons seem to not only get better at making those crafts, but have a deeper, more meaningful association with those annual events. As kids grow and mature they get to know Thanksgiving as more than just a day for extra sides of sweet potatoes and cranberries and get to experience the Fourth of July as more than an explosive fireworks display. As time goes by, they get to learn more about the ways and traditions of those holidays, what they mean to us culturally, as a people, and to them, personally, as a member of their family.
Halloween is an old school observance that we love to showcase here at the library. It is popular with both kids and adults, has a wealth of culture and tradition behind it and yet, over the years, has developed a certain cultural sensitivity in the community that we both honor and work with. Dia de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead, in a similar vein, is a fairly “new” ethnic celebration that occupies the same part of the seasonal calendar, one that we have chosen to observe and whose particular cultural sensitivities are slowly being brought to light.
The annual celebration of Día de los Muertos, traditionally held on November 1st and November 2nd, was for countless generations a raucous community event and yet a very personal and respectful family affair. Halloween’s rise in popularity made it easy to co-opt Día de los Muertos and bring it into the seasonal line up of events. The holiday has expanded to include the 31st of October but has also become a very commercial and increasingly mainstream event as well.
Big public cemeteries and Latino barrios, in cities with large Hispanic populations like Los Angeles and San Francisco, turn into hipster meccas on those sacred days. But take that same celebration… familial, colorful, sacred… and move it to any number of Hispanic countries down south and it becomes something else entirely. Those three days become an exciting and yet somber rite filled with decorated sweets, costumed parades, feasting, and personal reflection. Local cemeteries become community gathering spots. Homes are set up with altars for families to welcome their dead returning from the other world, with food and drink left out for the ancestors to relish before they begin their journey back to that nether world that they’ll occupy again for another year.
The branches of Jackson County Library Services serve as places of wonder and delight, especially when it comes to discovering new and interesting cultural holidays like Día de los Muertos. For years, especially during pre-internet times, libraries were the only place, outside of some local Hispanic bodegas, Latino museums, or people’s homes, where you could find images of or information about the holiday. Now, there are a nice array of children’s picture and non-fiction books on the subject to go along with other great books, videos, and streamed films on Mexican art, history, and culture to help you better understand the holiday. There are colorful children’s biographies, too, on artists like Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Jose Posada, so that when kids see those beautiful painted skulls or photos of young people dressed up like Frida, they have a better understanding of what they are looking at.
I am happy, as a children’s librarian, to have seen the rise, appreciation, and respectful visibility of this very special Latin American holiday in our libraries. Over the years, Día de los Muertos has become a very important and special celebration for me as well, so I can appreciate the fascination, excitement, and respect that goes along with it. When I look back on my childhood I can remember seeing ofrendas, “altars,” set up in my grandparent’s homes but had no idea what they were all about. These days I am more culturally aware. On November 1st I tend to set out enchiladas, cerveza, and pan de muerto for those hungry ghosts to sample and savor during the holiday. The rest of the year my people and I set up simple altars, just like my grandparents did, and set out photographs, lay down flowers, and light candles before images of our ancestors to let them know, if they are hovering nearby, that they are loved, missed, and well thought of.
Holidays are the kinds of things that we can share and enlighten each other about here in our libraries. Those ethnic Latino celebrations, like Mexican Independence Day on the 16th of September, Cinco de Mayo, Las Posadas, and all the rest are not just days to sell products and services, but to honor things that are just as important to our Hispanic community as holidays for Mom, freedoms, and lacy hearts are to some Americans – holidays that belong to all of us equally in our own times and ways.
Here is a list of great books on Latino culture and Day of the Dead!