A Splash of Color, Culture and Language: 4 Mexican Culture Project Ideas for the Classroom
If you have ever been to Mexico or to an exhibition of Mexican art at a museum or gallery, the colorful nature of the folk art and handicrafts undoubtedly left a lasting impression on you.
The colors, the detail, the mythology: it all combines in a splash of color and culture to create a remarkable effect.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could bring some of these images to life for your students?
You can, with these activities!
Give these Mexican projects a try in your classroom and you will be introducing your students to the wonders of Mexican art, culture and history.
The Importance of Folk Art in Mexican Culture
Artesanía: what is it?
Artesanía can be defined as any handicraft, or craft designed and created by artisans using traditional methods, that make up a critical part of a culture’s heritage. Mexican artesanía is particularly unique. Folk art takes the form of clay pottery, textiles, baskets, rugs, masks and different kinds of papercraft.
Visual motifs and patterns in Mexican artesanía often have their origins in the earliest complex civilizations of Mexican history, which date back to 1200 BCE.
The stories behind the traditions
Mexican folk art traditions go back thousands of years, and often incorporate cultural ideas from the civilizations that flourished in the region.
Some of the imaginary animals that persist in Mexican folklore represent various gods and other mythological figures from Aztec culture.
Due to this deep connection of modern Mexico to its history, stories and legends from these times provide a wonderful way to extend folk art culture projects. Incorporate these stories into your curriculum alongside the Mexican culture projects below to energize your lesson plans and get your students excited about folk art.
Why do your students need to learn about Mexican folk art?
The folk art of Mexico is integral to this beautiful country’s long and rich cultural history. As all Spanish teachers know, students of Spanish need exposure to the culture of Mexico, as well as other Spanish-speaking countries, in order to better connect and relate to the study of the Spanish language.
World language teachers are fundamental to the development of student awareness and empathy, and culture projects are a fabulously fun and accessible way to get your students on their way to becoming global citizens.
How to Create Mexican Folk Art Culture Projects in Your Classroom
Natural resources (and their classroom equivalents)
Mexican artesanía, in its original forms, is made from the wide variety of natural resources available to Mexican artisans. Artisans transform raw materials like clay, wood, stone and plants into various arts and crafts that make up part of Mexico’s rich cultural history.
For your classroom purposes, butcher paper makes a wonderful substitute for handcrafted paper, and store-bought clay, paints and other art supplies all make for beautiful Mexican folk art culture projects.
Color, color and more color!
Now is not the time for modern neutrals and tasteful pastels. No matter what art supplies you have available, encouraging a liberal hand with color is always a good strategy when teaching your students about Mexican folk art, culture and handicrafts.
Beautiful bright colors are characteristic of Mexican art, so the more bright and festive the colors, the better—no matter the handicraft or the classroom art project!
Patience, attention to detail and a steady hand
Students of all ages and all skill levels can benefit from the creative pursuit a Mexican folk art culture project offers. Remind students that folk artists and artisans create beautiful items without any formal art training, so they are well-equipped as they are. What it is truly required is a deep understanding of the culture behind the art.
As with any academic pursuit worth doing, art projects reward patience and attention to detail. In the classroom, offer students ample time to absorb the instructions and to organize their materials. These projects will almost certainly go less well in a rushed atmosphere.
4 Mexican Culture Project Ideas for Your Classroom
Banderolas, or Cut-Paper Banners
- Bright and evenly sized sheets of crepe paper in several different colors
- Masking tape
- Pre-printed papel picado templates
- Glue, or needle and thread
- Ask students to take two or three sheets of crepe paper and fold them in half, and then fold one of the templates over the folded crepe paper so that they make a little book.
- Cut through the dotted lines on the templates to create a pattern in the crepe paper sheets and assign one or two students the role of assembling the cut paper into a banner. They can assemble the banner by attaching the corners of the sheets of cut paper with needle and thread or with a spot of glue.
- When the banner is complete, hang and enjoy!
Culture & Language Connections:
Also known as papel picado, cut-paper banners have a decorative purpose and Mexicans hang them up for both religious and secular festivities.
Christmas, Easter, the Day of the Dead, weddings and baptisms are all opportunities to hang banderolas. Papel picado is so important to Mexican culture that it is recognized as an art form by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture in Mexico.
Use this culture project as a way to explain the grammar concept of el participio, or participle: Picado is the past participle of the verb picar, which means “to chop,” so papel picado translates to “chopped paper.” This is a great phrase that demonstrates how to use the past participle of a verb as an adjective.
Woven Mini-Mats: The Mexican Flag
- One 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of red colored paper per student
- A pile of one-inch-wide strips of white and bright green paper
- Ask students to fold the red sheet of paper in half.
- Students should then cut slits into the paper starting at the folded side and stopping about an inch or two from the edge of the paper. The slits do not need to be even.
- Unfold the paper and begin passing the white and green strips of paper over and under the slits to make a woven pattern.
Culture & Language Connections:
Though these basic paper-weaving projects are beautiful in any color combination, make the colors of the Mexican flag and the symbolism of these colors memorable for young students by focusing on red, green and white.
Show students a picture of the Mexican flag, and explain that some scholars believe that the green of the flag symbolizes the hope that drove the Independence Movement, the white represents the purity of the Catholic religion (the main religion of Mexico) and the red stands for the blood shed while Mexicans were fighting for independence from Spain.
While students are working on their weaving projects, offer them a spontaneous and informal oral review of their color vocabulary to build their confidence in the practice of speaking Spanish out loud.
Day of the Dead Ofrendas: Photo Frames
- A photograph of a loved one who has passed away (or a photocopy of the photo), brought by each student
- A papercraft photo frame
- Assorted decorations like sequins and tiny pompoms
- Bright paints or markers
- Examples of sugar skull art
- Designate a table in a corner of the classroom as the class ofrenda and cover it with a white sheet the day before doing this project.
- Offer each student a photo frame and ask them to take inspiration from the sugar skull art while decorating the frame in bright colors before inserting the photo of their loved one.
- Once completed, display the frames on the ofrenda, and ask volunteers to add food, flowers and a glass of water to complete the tradition.
Culture & Language Connections:
The Day of the Dead offers students a great opportunity to learn about how folk art can have very personal meanings to individuals and their families. Ask students if they know anything about the Day of the Dead to see if any misconceptions need clearing up.
For example, many people believe that the Day of the Dead is Mexican version of Halloween or an opportunity to worship relatives who have passed away. These notions are definitely not true. The Day of the Dead is a day about love and respect, not a day of mildly scary playfulness, and ofrendas are intended to honor relatives who have passed, not to deify them.
From a language angle, ofrendas offer students a great opportunity to practice their food vocabulary as food items are often included alongside the photographs, flowers and gifts on the same table as the ofrenda. Provide students with a list of food vocabulary and ask them to bring a few items from the list as a way to ensure some Spanish language is reinforced alongside this culture lesson.
Amate Paintings of Birds and Flowers
- Large rectangles of paper cut from brown butcher paper or brown paper grocery bags
- Black markers
- Bright tempera paint (avoid washable paints unless you are working with very young children; tempera paint makes for brighter colors against the brown backdrop)
- Sample amate paintings to show students (via a computer and projector screen or color-printed out on paper)
- Ask students to crumple up the paper carefully and then un-crumple it so that it lies flat on the work surface.
- Then ask students to draw basic outlines of flowers and birds onto the paper in thick black marker.
- Students will then color in the outlines with the tempera paint, using white paint and another layer of black marker on the outlines to accent their drawings once the paint colors have dried.
- If you are working with particularly young students, you can pre-draw the birds and flowers onto the paper for them. Remind students that the backgrounds of amate paintings stay brown, and the colors pop out from inside the black outlines.
Culture & Language Connections:
Explain to students that amate paper has existed in Mexico since before 300 BCE, which makes it an integral part of Mexican history.
Letters and diaries on amate paper, which is paper made from the bark of fig trees, were created in early Aztec history. Currently, Nahua artists paint on handmade amate paper, keeping the amate painting tradition alive in all its colorful glory.
Amate is a Spanish word that comes from the Nahuatl language, the language of the Aztecs. Other, more familiar words from this language include chipotle and chocolate. Invite your students to learn more about Nahuatl word origins with an exploration of other Spanish vocabulary words that come from this ancient language.
So there you have it! Enjoy bringing the bright and beautiful folk culture of Mexico to your students!
Lynn Ramsson is an educator who enjoys working with students of all ages. She has taught in Virginia and California, and now, she writes from the south coast of England where she lives with her family. She travels to Spain as often as she can, in search of the perfect gambas al ajillo.