The Day of the Dead is one of the most symbolic festivities and constitutes one of the most deep-rooted traditions in Mexico. This special day takes place on November 1st and 2nd, on which the living remember their deceased relatives. It is a time of commemoration for those who have passed and a time of communication between the living and the dead. This event represents a bridge between life and death. Some believe that the spirits of the departed return to earth to be with their relatives and to visit in their homes.
Contrary to what people may think, it is not a macabre celebration and it is celebrated joyfully; cemeteries and homes are filled with colors! On this occasion, people visit the cemetery, clean the gravesite, decorate it with candles, flowers and others special decorations, pray, sing and tell funny stories and anecdotes about their ancestors. We cannot forget to mention the Cempasuchil flowers (yellow marigold), which are the traditional yellow flowers used at this period of the year to decorate the graves and altars. According to aztec beliefs, their bright colors, orange and yellow tones, allude to the sun which guides the souls into the mortal world.
Another tradition to honor the lives of those who have left the mortal world is the making of an altar. Even if the celebration of the Day of the Dead exists at a community level such as in schools or publics places, it is mainly a private festivity; the altars are usually built inside people’s home, in the biggest room of the house. The creation of the altar involves all the family members and every one helps put the altar together. The size and altar structures vary a lot from one region to another: depending on the customs of the area, you could find them arched or multi-level, generally two and three levels.
However if changes are observed in the altars’ structures, there are recurrent components “ofrendas” placed on the altar to please the returning spirits. It usually includes different religious and pagan imageries, such as photos of the deceased loved ones, flowers, incense burners, salt, food, pan de los muertos, drink, and other items dearest to the dead. Indeed, it is an old belief that the dead, after their long journey from the underworld to earth, arrive very tired, thirsty and hungry. That is the reason why a glass of water and the favorite foods of the dead appear on the altar. Skulls, miniature toys, danzantes, candlesticks, skeleton figures, papel picado (paper cutouts) also serve as traditional decoration for the altar.
If the entire community prepares itself for this once a year event, artisans and their families play a key role: they have been creating these crafts for months! Their standard of living will depend on the sales of these pieces. The variety of handcrafts based on the Day of the Dead is very extended. All these handmade pieces constitute what we call today “The Day of the Dead Art” and they considerably enrich Mexican Folk Art!
Among these pieces, the skeleton lady “Catrina” has become one of the most symbolic and iconic handcrafts for the Day of the Dead. It is important to underline that at the beginning of the creation, in the early 1910´s, the identity of the Catrina was not associated with the Day of the Dead. In fact, for its creator, the cartoonist and illustrator José Guadalupe Posada, the skeleton Lady called by himself “Calavera Garbancera” (the term Catrina will be invented by another famous Mexican artist) represents a form of social and political satire against the corrupt government of Porfirio Diaz and the privileged class that benefited from his regime.
Thanks to the drawing, Posada´s vision was to bring a popular message to the masses, which were mostly illiterate at that time. Appearing as a sophisticated and refined lady, the Calvera Garbancera is dressed as the high society ladies of the late 19th and early 20th century, in particular the use of a French broad-brimmed hat.
Some will say that she bears a curious likeness to images of Porfirio Diaz´s wife Carmen Romero Rubio… By giving these attributes to the Calavera Garbancera, Jose Posada criticized some members of the upper class who forgot their roots and their Mexican origins and aspired to adopt European aristocratic ways and mocked anyone who attached too much importance to materialistic pleasures. Finally Jose Posada also wants to remember that death is the ultimate equalizer, as we all have to face it.
The second fundamental moment in the birth of the Catrina character was in 1948 when Diego Rivera realized a fifty foot fresco called “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda park”. This mural invites the viewer to witness some Mexican historical references. Diego Rivera always considered Jose Posada as his artistic father and he credited Posada’s work as an influence on him. This mural is dedicated to him: in this work Diego Rivera reinterpreted Posada’s Calavera Garbancera and baptized it “La Catrina”; you can observe on the central part that the artist painted himself as a child holding the bony hand of the Catrina as her other arm is held by Jose Posada. The Catrina unites these two talented Mexican artists.
Thanks to the Day of the Dead Art, we notice that Mexicans have a very peculiar relationship and attitude towards Death. They view it as a symbolic part of their national identity. The Mexican writer Octavio Paz summed up the Mexican outlook: “The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips. The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it, it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love”