Learning About the Southwest Frontier with American Girl Josefina: Part1 – The Colonization of New Mexico and Dia de Los Muertos

Josefina was a girl in the Southwest Frontier in 1824. Josefina lived in New Mexico, which was part of Mexico at that time and included modern-day New Mexico and northwest Texas.

History of New Mexico

You can use the following script with the visuals below. Glue the images to popsicle sticks and have the children hold the pictures up when they are mentioned in the script (the words in bold correspond with the pictures).

In the early 1500s, about three hundred years before Josefina would have lived, Spanish explorers came to Mexico and claimed it as a colony of Spain. A conquistador, or conqueror, named Hernan Cortes was one of the first to do this. He conquered the Aztec people of Mexico and took over its huge empire. This was a sad time in Mexico because as Spanish conquistadores continued to conquer and colonize Mexico, they mistreated and enslaved the native people. They also brought with them diseases that wiped out many of the natives. This made them easier to conquer and control. The Spanish were growing wealthy and powerful from the abundant gold and silver in this new land and so they continued to colonize it.

In the late 1500s, the Spanish heard a rumor that there were seven cities of gold in northern lands, and conquistadores began searching for them. That northern land came to be called “New Mexico.” Gold was not found there, but there was unsettled land. So many Mexican and Spanish people who were eager for a chance to own land traveled to New Mexico to settle on land of their own. Catholic priests also came and built missions with the aim of bringing their faith to the Native Americans there called the Pueblo people. At first, the Spanish treated the Pueblo people badly – they forced them to work for them and punished them severely if they refused. But eventually, the Spanish, Mexican, and Pueblo people learned to live together as neighbors.

The Spanish settlers began to make Mexico their home, and new generations of Spanish were born and raised there. Some of them married native people, like the Pueblo and Aztecs. But there was trouble in the colonies. The Spanish people who were born in Spain, who called themselves peninsulares considered themselves to be in a higher class than Spanish people who were Mexican born, who were called criollos. The children of Spanish people who married natives, called mestizos, were considered lower in class that those of purely Spanish descent. Lower still were the Aztecs, Pueblos, and other native people and people of African descent. The colonists who were born in Spain, the Peninsulares, had the most rights and privilege. The natives and Africans had the fewest rights and privileges. Mestizos were in the middle. Mestizos were quickly becoming the largest part of the population of Mexico, however, and there was unrest among the mestizos and natives because of oppression by the Peninsulares. Eventually that unrest led to uprising and war. The Mexican War for Independence lasted for years and years, and at first, seemed doomed to fail. But after 11 long years of fighting, Mexico finally gained independence from Spain in 1821. Mexico was now its own country! Josefina would have been 6 years-old at that time.

Dia de Los Muertos

Because of the mixture of people in New Mexico, Josefina’s culture was also a mixture of different traditions and beliefs. We can see this mixture in the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos. Dia de los Muertos grew out of an ancient Aztec ritual that celebrated the lives of the dead. When the Spanish conquered Mexico they tried to end the practice, but when that failed, they morphed the holiday into a Christian one by merging it with All Saints Day and All Souls Day.

Dia de los Muertos is a time of reunion between the living and family members and loved ones who have passed on. The first day of the celebration, November 1, is the day when the spirits of children are allowed to reunite with their families. On November 2, adult spirits are allowed to do so. Family members make altars of candles and incense to guide the spirits of their loved ones to them, and they leave out their loved ones’ favorite foods and treats. Pan de Muertos is a favorite traditional food this is eaten during Dia de los Muertos.

Eat Some Pan de Muerto!

Pan de Muerto is easy to make, but you can also find it ready made at the grocery store around November 1 and 2 in some places. I found some at Walmart in my area! Our local grocery store (HEB) bakery also said they were making some for the occasion, but they weren’t putting it out until November 1. Pan de Muerto is a sweet bread that is glazed with citrus and sugar. It is very tasty!

Make a Dia de los Muertos Altar!

Dis de los Muertos altar

My altar was super simple, but you get the idea. You can start with candles and incense, then add photos, marigolds (another commonly used item for Dia de los Muertos also thought to guide the spirits), sugar skulls, and other decorations.

Mexicans also decorate both the altars and their loved ones’ graves with photos, flowers, and other decorations. Sugar skulls are often used as decorations. Family members will write the name of their deceased loved one on a skull and decorate it elaborately. Small skulls are used for children, large ones for adults. The skulls are for decoration only, not for eating, though other candy skulls are made of chocolate or sugar that are meant to be eaten. You might wonder, like I did (and like my children are right now as they stare at huge masses of sugar shaped as skulls and smelling liking marshmallows), why in the world the skulls would be made out of sugar if they weren’t meant for eating. The answer is tradition. It started in the 1600s when Italian missionaries visited Mexico. The colonists were very poor at the time, but they had an abundance of sugar, and the Italian missionaries taught them how to make decorations out of it. They would make molds out of clay and mold the sugar into shapes. And thus, the sugar skull was born!

Make Sugar Skulls for Dia de los Muertos

Sugar skulls are very simple to make. All you need is:

  • a skull mold
  • white sugar (a little more than 1/2 c. for one side of a medium skull)
  • merengue powder (1 tsp. per cup of sugar)
  • water


Measure in the amount of sugar you need (you will need a little more than 1/2 c. for the front of one medium skull. If you plan to make the back side too, you’ll probably need a full cup).

Add 1 tsp of merengue powder for each cup of sugar. Mix. Now sprinkle water over the mixture. Start with 1 tsp of water per cup of sugar. You might need to add more. Mix the water in with your hands for a few minutes.

The sugar mixture needs to feel like damp beach sand and hold together fairly well in your hand. It’s going to need to come out of the skull mold intact and it will crumble if it is too dry. You also don’t want it too wet, though, so add more water as needed, but just a teaspoon at a time and mix very well between additions. I had to add more than 2 tsp/ cup of sugar when I made these skulls, so don’t be surprised if you need more water. When the sugar seems to be holding together pretty well and feels like damp beach sand, pack it into the mold. scrape off any excess with a butter knife or spatula, then pack it again.

Carefully and gently turn it out onto a covered pan. Let it dry for a day or two before decorating. If you made a back and front to the skull, glue them together with royal icing once they are dry.

Now, you can decorate your skulls! You can decorate them however you would like – you can use beads, sequins, feathers, colored foil, etc.. Make and color some royal icing to decorate your skull and “glue” on your other decorations. The royal icing will harden very quickly and will be very very hard in 24 hours of so. Your skulls will keep for years if you want to reuse them!

Feliz Dia de los Muertos!

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