Education

How one art teacher uses Día de los Muertos to help students heal

Art and English teacher Learsi Martinez paints a red flower on the face of 17-year-old Jocelyn Cordova. Cordova, who lost her older sister, says she loved red flowers.
Art and English teacher Learsi Martinez paints a red flower on the face of 17-year-old Jocelyn Cordova. Cordova, who lost her older sister, says she loved red flowers.
Carla Javier/KPCC

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It's 7:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning, and teacher Learsi Martinez is in her classroom painting skulls and flowers on her students' faces in honor of Día de los Muertos. 

Her school, the San Gabriel Conservation Corps YouthBuild School in El Monte, is an alternative to traditional high school. Students there have "dropped out, aged out, or been otherwise failed by the traditional school system," according to the school's website.

Many of Martinez' students in her English and art classes have experienced trauma in their lives and have lost someone close to them.

"Sometimes, the young people don't have spaces to talk about the person who has passed," Martinez explained. So she uses art to create an environment where they can, and the annual Day of the Dead celebration creates an opportunity for that conversation.

Martinez has her students make their own with celebratory altars displays with cardboard, paint and photos. They fill the shoebox altars with items that their loved ones enjoyed in their lifetimes.

Seventeen-year-old Jocelyn Cordova made a purple and red altar and filled it with red flowers for her older sister, Maria, who died last year in an accident. 

Cordova said she wasn't into art before, but she liked making the altar because "you're honoring the person who's passed."

The students' altars are on display outside of Learsi Martinez's art and English classroom at the San Gabriel Conservation Corps YouthBuild School in El Monte.
The students' altars are on display outside of Learsi Martinez's art and English classroom at the San Gabriel Conservation Corps YouthBuild School in El Monte.
Carla Javier/KPCC

After painting their faces and putting flowers in their hair, the students made their way to Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles to see the community altars marking the celebration.

They sit in a circle on the pavement, and talk about what they saw and felt. Then, they share stories about the people they honored with their altars. 

Sixteen-year-old Stephanie Garcia talks about her cousin, who loved to dress up and do her hair. 

"I feel like the Day of the Dead, we should really appreciate it," Garcia said to the group. "Because without it, nobody would talk about our loved ones who passed away ... . They'd try to hide it because they know they're going to cry."

Then Cordova shares with her classmates that her sister always encouraged her to stay in school. That's what led her to go back to classes after she stopped attending to help her mother following her sister's death.

Students from the San Gabriel Conservation Corps YouthBuild School in El Monte visited Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles where they held a
Students from the San Gabriel Conservation Corps YouthBuild School in El Monte visited Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles where they held a "community circle." They sat on the pavement outside of Pico House and shared stories about loved ones they have lost.
Carla Javier/KPCC

Even Martinez, their teacher, shares her story. She tells them about a former student who had participated in the same activities, creating an altar and visiting Olvera Street. He later passed away in an accident. 

"As a teacher, it’s really hard because we’ve had students who have passed, and students who are still struggling from different things," Martinez said.

It's an emotional experience for the students; they comforted each other with hugs when their classmates were moved to tears. It's nothing to be shamed of, Martinez said. 

"It's okay to let our emotions in positive ways out," she tells them. "This is a healthy way."

This is not the only project Martinez plans to highlight and use art in her classroom. She's one of 50 teachers who received a grant from the LA Promise Fund and Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA to bring Latin American and Latino arts education to her students. She will use the funds to present her students' work later this year. 

This story has been updated.