Skulls and Dancing Skeletons
Days of the Dead
Como Mexico no hay dos. There’s no place like Mexico.
This popular dicho, or saying, is uttered with pride by
many Mexican people, and with awe—and perhaps just a little
envy—by visitors who experience the vibrant colors, festive
music, and elaborate pageantry of a Mexican celebration. Many culturally-significant
festivals take place year-round throughout Mexico, but for sheer
beauty and spectacle, the festivities surrounding Los Días
de los Muertos, or the Days of the Dead, are unparalleled.
The Christian tenet of eternal life after death and the ancient
observation of the cycles of nature are intermingled in this celebration,
which combines the Catholic traditions of All Saints’ Day
and All Souls’ Day (November 1st and 2nd, respectively) with
pre-Hispanic concepts of death. Elaborate altars, called ofrendas,
are constructed to honor the deceased, and amid the pungent scent
of marigolds and copal incense, and flickering candlelight, family
members hold all-night vigils in the cemeteries, awaiting the souls
of their loved ones who are believed to return for a 24-hour period.
The holiday has also inspired a rich folk art tradition. The work
of Mexican printmaker, José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913)
has come to be closely associated with the Days of the Dead. Although
the popular artist’s prints frequently featured images of
skeletons and skulls, the use of skeletons in Mexican prints actually
originated with another artist, Santiago Hernandez in the 1870s.
Often depicting politicians as skeletons, or calacas, his
intention was to provoke distaste for the political figures. Posada
continued the tradition, but added a touch of humor. His drawings
were not limited to politicians, and were intended to poke fun at
people from all walks of life.
Of the many figures and symbols associated with the Days of the
Dead, Posada’s image of “Catrina,” an elegant
and well-dressed female skeleton, is probably the most popular and
well-known. Originally meant to satirize the life of the upper classes
during the reign of Porfirio Diaz, Catrina’s image can be
seen all over Mexico and is particularly evident during the Days
of the Dead.
Today, folk art pieces featuring skeletons and skulls are found
in virtually every size, shape, and color. While they may at first
seem macabre to many Americans, the images are not meant to be frightening
or unpleasant. Instead, they reflect the Mexicans’ honest
appraisal of human mortality, an understanding and acceptance of
death as a natural part of life.
Skeletal figures range from the very tiny—only a couple of
inches tall, to full human-sized. They may be made of wood, papier-mâché,
clay, or practically any media. Limited only by the artist’s
imagination, it’s possible to find figures engaged in virtually
every sport or hobby.
The wedding couple is also a very popular Days of the Dead theme.
The bride and groom symbolize a love that will endure even after
death. Calacas are usually depicted with full, happy smiles,
in keeping with the belief that death is not to be feared.