Mexico is that country full of colorful traditions and a vibrant culture that expands past the beautiful vacation beaches, resorts, and friendly people. The country is worth visiting for many reasons; like its extraordinary culinary distinctiveness, archeological sights, and also for its diversity of festivals. Mexico has many local customs that are typical to specific areas of the country, but some deep-rooted traditions and events are celebrated throughout the country.
One of the most recognized yearly events that is celebrated throughout Mexico is Día de los Muertos. This celebration is rich in rituals and expresses the unique and exceptional relationship that Mexicans have with death and with their ancestors.
It’s a distinct spiritual time of the year to gather family members together, reflect, and remember our family members who aren’t with us anymore. It’s a happy celebration meant to honor our dearly departed loved ones and to appreciate life while we are still part of the living.
This Day of the Dead event is actually a set of traditions and symbols that can be slightly different depending on the area in Mexico. These festivities are spread over several days, normally the first few days of November when the celebrations are at their peak in the country. Some symbols like skeletons, sugar skulls, altars, and the colorful cut-paper streamers can be seen in all parts of Mexico at this time.
Day of the Dead is not the “Mexican Halloween” like it is sometimes mistaken to be because of the timing of the year. It has nothing to do with the traditional Halloween customs that are well-known in the USA and other parts of the world. Actually, decorating your house with spiders and bats and wearing scary costumes is not done in most parts of Mexico. The most Halloween thing that resembles the traditional Halloween activities is celebrated in the more contemporary areas of Mexico where kids go door-to-door asking for calaveritas (small skulls), expecting candy or fruit.
Day of the Dead was recently made even more famous with the award-winning 3D computer-animated movie “Coco” released in 2017. The story is about 12-year-old Miguel who gets transported to the land of the Dead and meets his ancestors. The movie beautifully and masterfully covers the traditions involved during the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico.
One of the strongest and most recognizable symbols of The Day of the Dead celebrations is the tall female skeleton wearing a fancy hat with feathers. You have surely seen her in various contexts because the striking unique makeup has become very trendy in the last years. Her name is La Catrina and the essence of her story goes deep into Mexican traditions and roots but has been restyled only in the last century.
It is believed that the Aztecs worshipped a goddess of death that they alleged protected their departed loved ones, helping them into the next stages. The Mexican tradition of honoring and celebrating the dead is entrenched deeply in the culture of its people.
The skeleton with the hat that we see today came to life in the early 1900’s by artist José Guadalupe Posada. Posada was a controversial and political cartoonist that was liked by the people and who drew and etched skeletons (calaveras) in a satirical way to remind people that they would all end up dead in the end. It is said that he drew the dandy-looking female skeleton with a fancy feathered hat because some Mexicans had aspirations to look wealthy and aristocratic like the Europeans at that time. A satirical drawing to remind people to be themselves and to stop trying to be something that they weren’t. No matter how rich or poor you were, no matter the color of your skin, and no matter what society you belonged to, you would all end up skeletons. This was Posada’s message with his many caricatures of cavaleras sketched doing various daily activities. One of his most popular sayings was “Death is democratic”. Simple, but so very true!
Famous artist and husband of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, immortalized La Catrina in one of his murals that depicted 400 years of Mexican history. The mural “Dreams of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park” was painted in the 1940’s and displays several important Mexican characters with La Catrina showcased on the 15-meter mural. He painted a self-portrait of himself as a child holding hands with her in the front row. Rivera painted her wearing sophisticated clothing and an extravagant hat with feathers, consequently creating the look that she is well-known for today. The mural can be seen in the Diego Rivera Mural Museum in Mexico City. Very well worth the visit if you are ever in Mexico City!
From there, La Catrina became a strong symbol for the numerous Day of the Dead activities. Women paint their faces in colorful make-up and dress with elegant outfits evoking the famous symbolic skeleton. Celebrations are held in the cemeteries (panteóns) where the mood is jovial and people cheerfully commemorate their lost loved ones, offering them flowers and some of their favorite foods and beverages from when they were still alive.
La Catrina is a popular tourist fascination and can be found in statue form in many local stores throughout Mexico made of wood, clay, or papier maché. These are eloquently painted and real feathers added to the hats. Many people purchase these statues and bring them back as souvenirs of their times spent in Mexico. There is no mistaking her identity, La Catrina is 100% Mexican!
She is a strong visual image depicting how the Mexican people see death and the afterlife. Different cultures have diverse traditions in regards to death and how they deal with it individually and as a family. Mexico is very unique in their views of this fact of life and prefers to take it good-humoredly and passionately. That is not to say that they don’t grieve and miss a loved one who passes away. What it means is that they choose to celebrate the life and memories the person created while they were with them instead of indulging in the fact that they are gone forever.
Planning your next trip to Mexico during Día de los Muertos will definitely leave you with a good sense of the Mexican people and their views on life and living.
La Catrina is about living your true self and it’s also about not pretending to be someone you are not. No matter what you look like and where you come from you will end up a skeleton in the end with everyone else!