ISU students complete Day of the Dead service learning project

November 11 2008

Students studying Spanish at Indiana State University recently put their translation skills to the test while learning about an integral part of Spanish and Latin American culture during a unique service learning project.

Ten students from Professor Lisa Calvin's Spanish and Spanish American Cultures class served as translators for the Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration at the Indianapolis Art Center. The annual event features elaborate altars created by community members to honor loved ones or causes and each features a three-dimensional collection of artifacts, along with a description of the shrine's significance.

Calvin, a professor of Spanish in the department of languages, literatures, and linguistics, and her students were asked to translate the English descriptions into Spanish to create a bilingual display. Each translation was peer-edited and then proofread by Calvin, along with ISU professors Carmen Montañez and Connie Elmore, for final approval.

"For me one of the most exciting things is to be able to make this a thread throughout the course," Calvin said. "We began with a look at ancient Aztec practices associated with death and burial all the way up to reading modern death announcements."

The Day of the Dead, celebrated mainly in Mexico, is a time for family members to honor those who have passed away. In Mexican and Latin American cultures, death is historically viewed as more of a celebratory time than one of great sadness.

"We've studied death from a cultural standpoint and looked at the idea that it's not something to be feared," Calvin said, adding the celebration is often wrongly associated with Halloween or other more macabre connotations. "The students have been able to see beyond preconceived notions and really develop a deeper cultural awareness and understanding."

The translation project culminated in a trip to the Indianapolis Art Center on Nov. 1. Many of the students met the creators of the shrines during the Dià ¤e los Muertos celebration.

"More than anything it was a cultural experience," said Cara Gilliam, a senior Spanish major from Plainfield. "They reflect a lot more on the past and have a different understanding of death."

Gilliam translated messages that had been written on leaves created by children to honor a classmate who died at a young age. While many of altars were in remembrance of family members or loved ones, other served as shrines to groups of people or causes. One commemorated a beloved cat.

Sarah Tillman, a sophomore from Warsaw double majoring in psychology and Spanish, translated an altar description dedicated to late actors from the Indianapolis theatre community. At the ceremony, she was able to meet the man who created the altar and learned even more about its significance.

"He used a lot of symbols on the shrine and was able to explain to me what each one meant," Tillman said. "It was neat to see an altar that was dedicated to an entire group of people."

Translating the text of each shrine from Spanish to English proved a unique challenge for the students.

Kaitlyn Eddelman, a sophomore elementary education major from Columbus, translated a letter.

"The most difficult part for me was when I would come across a word that could mean a lot of different things," she said. "Under one word in your dictionary can be a list of a dozen different definitions."

Students also had to ensure that the meaning of each shrine didn't get lost in translation.

"We had to try and portray feeling, not just a specific word," Eddleman said. "Word for word translation doesn't work when you're trying to convey the emotion attached to something."

The event at the art center also featured traditional music and dance of Mexico conducted by a Chicago mariachi band and Mexican foods not commonly found in restaurants such as dessert tamales. ISU graduate student Eugenia Patricia Saylor translated a set of poems that were read by masked actors.

Before arriving at the museum, the students ate at a tapas restaurant. Tapas, similar to American appetizers, are very popular in Spain. Instead of bar hopping, Spanish young people often go from restaurant to restaurant to try each establishment's signature appetizer.

"This was one of the few tapas restaurants in the Midwest. The students were able to take part in something that is very common among people of the same age in Spain," Calvin said. "The whole day was a great way for them to connect with another culture in memorable ways."

Other students participating in the project were Kylie Carrithers, Sarah Cox, Jennifer Gosnell, Lisa Simmons-Dove, Ryan Stroud, Geoffery Teater and Nate Tompkins.

The project was made possibly by assistance from the Lilly Endowment, Focus Indiana and the ISU Center for Public Service and Community Engagement.


Contact: Lisa Calvin, associate professor of Spanish, Indiana State University, 812-237-2363 or

Writer: Emily Taylor, assistant director of media relations, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or

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Story Highlights

When the Indianapolis Art Center needed translators for its annual Day of the Dead celebration, ISU students from the department of languages, literatures, and linguistics were more than willing to offer their skills. They visited the center during the celebration and learned more about a unique facet of Spanish and Latin American culture.

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