Following the previous post about Disney/Pixar’s Coco (2017), it feels right to focus next on one of my favorite cortometrajes, an award-winning student project from Ringling College of Art and Design entitled “Dia de los Muertos” (2013). (Note: Even though in Spanish it would normally be spelled “Día” with the tilde, the short’s actual title does not use the tilde so I have not used it in this post.) “Dia de los Muertos” is an animated short, just over three minutes long, that follows a young girl’s magical journey to the land of the dead, where she is reunited with the spirit of her deceased mother. It feels very much like a precursor to Coco; I don’t know whether it actually is, although the corto’s iMDb page does tell me that Ashley Graham, one of the creators of “Dia de los Muertos”, later worked on the Guillermo del Toro-helmed The Book of Life (2014).
I love using “Dia de los Muertos” in my Spanish classes for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it is a charming, beautifully rendered and heartwarming story that captures the spirit of the Dia de Muertos holiday in a way that makes it accessible to US audiences. Although Coco has done a lot in the past year to raise awareness of Día de Muertos, the proximity to Halloween and the intense discomfort people in the US have around death mean that many learners may not initially understand the overall happy, joyful atmosphere that surrounds Día de Muertos.
This cortometraje does an excellent job of conveying that happiness and warmth through its use of vivid colors, sprightly music and cheerful imagery. It acknowledges the sadness and the sense of grief and loss that the little girl experiences as she mourns her mother, but it quickly moves beyond that into a lighthearted and celebratory exploration of the exuberant party going on in the land of the dead.
Other reasons why I enjoy using this corto in class are that is brief enough to easily screen it in its entirety, twice if necessary, without taking up an inordinate amount of time, and it contains no dialogue so it lends itself to any number of language-related activities for any proficiency level. “Dia de los Muertos” is also appropriate for a wide range of ages. It is briefly sorrowful, and then very briefly a little scary, but then immediately becomes lighthearted and playful. Even quite young audiences will enjoy this corto and be able to appreciate its tender and touching message.
For learners viewing “Dia de los Muertos” on their own:
Since “Dia de los Muertos” contains no spoken dialogue, it will not be a source of target language input, but learners can use it as a context for generating language of their own. For example, learners could invent dialogue for the little girl: what would she say, if she had spoken lines? Would the skeletons speak? What would they say? Another possibility is to come up with the little girl’s interior monologue: even though she does not speak, we can clearly read her emotions through the corto. Learners can try to put those thoughts into words and generate a running commentary in Spanish from the little girl’s point of view.
If you have already read my post about Coco (2017), you can play the same game of “spot the examples of Mexican culture” in this cortometraje. Even though it is only three minutes long, practically every frame contains details that will help to enrich your appreciation of Mexico and this celebration. Viewers at any level of proficiency can challenge themselves to remember vocabulary and describe what they see in Spanish.
For language educators:
One of my favorite activities to use with this corto is to practice narrating the story with preterite and imperfect. The opening frames that establish the occasion and the fact that the little girl is mourning her mother are a perfect opportunity to describe the setting using the imperfect. Then, when the flower appears and pulls the little girl underground, we see specific, concrete actions that change the circumstances and that need to be described using the preterite. Next, the little girl finds herself in a new place: here we have an opportunity for a brief description using the imperfect. And as new actions appear on screen, we see new opportunities to describe what happened using the preterite.
We also have, in this corto, a helpful context for demonstrating the use of preterite and imperfect with emotions. Many textbooks contain inadequately nuanced explanations of preterite and imperfect usage, relying on rules of thumb such as “imperfect is used for emotions” that are not entirely reliable. (For some academic literature on this subject, see Frantzen, 2013, “Using literary texts to reveal problematic rules of usage”, Foreign Language Annals 46:4, 628-645 and Frantzen, 1995, “Preterite/imperfect half-truths: Problems with Spanish textbook rules for usage”, Hispania 78, 145-158.) In “Dia de los Muertos”, we see a number of opportunities to appropriately use imperfect to describe ongoing or pre-existing emotions, such as “la niña estaba triste porque su madre estaba muerta”. However, there are also a series of instances in which we see her emotions change. This is an excellent opportunity to point out that the preterite is the appropriate choice to mark the beginning or end of an emotional state, such as “la muchacha se sorprendió cuando la flor le agarró la muñeca”.
The focus on preterite and imperfect can be extended beyond the corto itself by inviting learners to speculate about what happened after the little girl exited the cemetery. We only see her visit her mother’s grave and interact with her mother’s spirit; presumably she has other living family members that she is going home to, and whom she might tell about her adventure. One feature of the preterite in Spanish that learners often struggle with is the -ó endings on third-person singular (él/ella/usted) forms, given that they are so accustomed to -o endings on present tense yo-form (first-person singular) verbs. After students have narrated the story of what “she” did and what happened to “her” on her adventure in the land of the dead, you can direct them to imagine that they are the little girl, telling her father (or sibling, or abuelita, etc.) what she experienced, using the yo-form verbs and practicing the -é and -í endings instead of -ó.
For more advanced learners who may have begun to work with the subjunctive, “Dia de los Muertos” offers plenty of fodder for discussion that invites them to comment on their emotional response to the work, using expressions such as “Es interesante que …”, “Fue sorprendente que …”, “Era bueno que …” and the like, that lead them to use the subjunctive with the subsequent verb. Depending on the learners’ proficiency, this activity could be limited to the present subjunctive or extended into the imperfect and pluperfect subjunctive forms. Learners can also be invited to speculate on hypotheticals, i.e. “What would you do if you were …?” or “What could the little girl have done if she had …?”, again, depending on the level of grammatical complexity that the students are capable of processing.
For learners who are able to combine the imperfect subjunctive and the conditional to make “if/then” statements, another thematically-related activity that connects to the cortometraje and the holiday is to ask them to think of an important person in their lives who has passed on, and to pose the questions, “Si pudieras hablar una vez más con esta persona, ¿qué le dirías? ¿Le preguntarías algo? ¿Le pedirías algo?” Along with practicing the grammar of hypothetical statements, this is also an opportunity to spotlight the difference between preguntar and pedir: Would you ask the person for information (i.e. about their life, their experiences, their knowledge)? Would you make a request for some object or favor?
Instructors should be aware that this last activity, while potentially deeply meaningful for learners, can also get into emotionally sensitive territory pretty quickly. As such, it may be a good idea to direct learners to write or type their responses rather than speak them, and to be judicious about asking people to share responses with partners or with the class. It is best to invite students to volunteer to share responses rather than calling on individuals or expecting everyone to share publicly (and if nobody volunteers to share, this is an instance where I would not recommend pressing the issue). If there is a way to invite students to share responses anonymously (for example, by using a backchannel), that can be a useful way of soliciting participation without putting individual students in a position of having to share emotionally fraught responses.
Have you engaged with “Dia de los muertos”? Share your ideas, experiences and suggestions in the comments!
Title: Día de los Muertos
Directors: Ashley Graham, Kate Reynolds, Lindsey St. Pierre
Genre: Animated Short
Duration: 3 min.
Language: No dialogue
Publication Date: 2013
Company: Ringling College of Art and Design