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Laughing Skulls and Dancing Skeletons

Celebrating Mexico’s 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.