‘Be as old as you can!’ Rubi Sanchez told a class of second and third graders at Sierra Expeditionary Learning School, a new charter school that opened last year. The students hobbled around the gym, hunched over and bent on sticks, putting on their best elderly act.

Sanchez, the Spanish teacher at the school, was teaching the steps to a choreographed dance that the students will perform at the Dia de los Muertos Celebration (Day of the Dead) on Friday, Nov. 4 at the Community Arts Center in downtown Truckee.

Dia de los Muertos is a major holiday in Mexico where friends and family gather to remember those who have passed. Despite its somber purpose, Dia de los Muertos is a festive celebration with beautiful altars built for the deceased, music, food, and community gathering.

‘The kids have learned that this is a happy celebration,’ Sanchez said. ‘They don’t need to be afraid.’

Teaching the students about the holiday will give them a sense of appreciation for another culture with different customs, said teacher Diane Welch, whose students are participating in Sanchez’s performance.

When asked about Dia de los Muertos, most of the students said it was the first time they had learned about the holiday. They also noted the differences between Dia de los Muertos and Halloween — rather than dressing up as ghouls and ghosts and vampires, the Day of the Dead commemorates real people. Calvin Kahlich, 7, said he built two altars, one for his dog and one for his grandma, both of whom passed away recently.

‘We make an altar to honor them,’ Kahlich said. Kahlich’s altars were built with a picture of each his deceased loved ones, as well as their favorite food and one of their favorite things. He displayed M&Ms on his grandma’s altar and a frisbee on his dog’s.

During class, Sanchez took the students to the gym to practice their dance — affectionately called a ‘funny dance’ by the kids.
‘They are really having fun doing the dance,’ Sanchez said. And that’s the key to teaching about another culture — if the kids enjoy it, they will learn it.

Song is another method Sanchez uses to teach SELS students Spanish. From the Cucaracha to La Bamba, Mexican folk songs teach history and culture. The holiday Dia de los Muertos holds a certain mysticism to it, which also holds the kids’ curiosity and interest, Sanchez said.

A Spanish learning element fits nicely with the mission at SELS, a charter school that strives to mimick the diversity of the town, said David Manahan, the school’s director.

‘We’re trying to introduce them and give them an understanding of another language and culture,’ Manahan said.