Students at the Humanities Magnet at Cleveland Charter High are taught much differently than students at most other schools. There are no textbooks — at this school the curriculum is created by the teachers and is allowed to evolve.
Located on the Cleveland Charter High School campus in Reseda, the Humanities Magnet is considered a “gem” that began in 1981 as a federally desegregated school. Sixty percent of the school’s population are students of color and 40 percent are white.
Jennifer Macon, Humanities Magnet coordinator, describes the school as a “magical learning environment.” The Magnet program integrates the arts into the study of History, English and Philosophy.
The school has often led the way — so much so, that while the Dia de los Muertos holiday is starting to be introduced in schools and at community events, the indigenous tradition has been honored at Cleveland’s Humanities Magnet for the past 30 years. And for the last 25 years, the curriculum has included a unit on Mexico that studies the Mexica (Aztec) people. The students learn about the tradition of honoring the dead that goes back 3,000 years to pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.
Planning for the event this year, the school consulted with Oaxacan artist Aldo Cruz who suggested the theme, “Sacred Migration,” which not only spoke to current issues but reflected the life experiences of immigrant and Central American students at their school.
With strong winds, power outages and fires still blazing last week, the whole school at Cleveland Charter High pitched in to accommodate the Dia de los Muertos altars that were originally planned for construction outside, the school rearranged its planned activities to bring the ofrendas (offerings) inside a gym area.
Cleveland Students walked in a line passing each altar quietly. For some students it was the very first time they’ve seen a Dia de los Muertos altar.
“I think the students and all of us were really touched by seeing all of the items on the altars representing the students’ loved ones,” Macon said.
“There was a hat that someone brought that represented their grandfather, another was a plaque with a fish. One of our English language students brought a model car for the altar. It was given to him from his parents when he was a small boy right before they died in a car accident — that was very moving for all of us.”
“‘Sacred Migration’, we felt incorporated the students who were part of our event including our four levels of English language learners and immigrants new to our school,” Macon said. “The theme ‘Sacred Migration’ also reflected the migration of our 8th graders becoming 9th graders and the ways the students will take the evolution of learning whether it’s from one country to another or from one school to another. With them, we discover how they learn through this process.”
In his guidance, Cruz pointed to the strong differences between Dia de los Muertos and Halloween, which in the United States over recent years have become blurred into one holiday with people painting their faces in a Dia de los Muertos style for Halloween. “It’s important to respect our traditions and the altar with the ofrendas, – Halloween is very different, it’s about being scary. Dia de los Muertos is about love, you come together with close family and offer stories, food and place your loved ones mementos on the altar. ”
“A lot of people misinterpret this holiday and it becomes an appropriated event,” Macon acknowledged. “Our students get a fuller understanding of the tradition and have a greater perspective and the humanity of the event. It’s not just something you paint your face for and they appreciate it for its place in Mexican culture. Death is such a scary thing for kids and they get another way to look at death — not to fear it.”
In addition to providing the theme for the school’s event, Cruz provided information and direction to construct a traditional altar.
“I let them know what elements to have on the altar –water, earth, wind and fire … water is the source of life and is said to quench the thirst of the dead when they return from a long journey. Candles for light – the light of the candle … when you are watching your ancestors … flowers, everything is from madre tierra — mother earth, wind is symbolized with papel picado because it blows from the wind. The burning of copal —- to cleanse to purify and to offer protection from bad spirits,” Cruz described.
Marigolds, also called Cempasuchil, are the traditional bright orange flowers used to honor the dead. Their strong aroma is said to help lure a spirit back. A traditional sweet bread baked for the holiday, known as Pan de Muerto is often placed on the altar. The deceased favorite foods can also be included, along with their favorite items they enjoyed while living. Cruz said the most important item placed on the altar is a photo of the person you are honoring which should be placed at the top of the altar.
Other items are placed as ofrendas — offerings that can include sugar skulls, fruit, religious items and meaningful items. Most importantly, the photo of the loved one should be placed at the top of the altar.
“I believe it is absolutely necessary to teach people where they come from and where other people come from,” said Macon. “We are providing human stories — the way we’ve evolved, sharing our similarities and understanding and appreciating our differences to ask the important question about why are we here and what we do with the time that is given to us. We look at the different ways that cultures have responded to those questions” she said.
For the seventh consecutive year, Cleveland Charter High Humanities Magnet School received the 2019 Magnet School of Excellence National Merit Award. Last year, the school became the first nationally certified magnet school in LAUSD. Nearly 98 percent of the school’s graduating students attend two- and four-year college programs after high school completion.