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The intricate skeleton faces and bright paper banners have helped distinguish this famous Mexican festival as one of the most beautiful celebrations in the world. But while rooted in tradition, the festival’s design has a life of its own.

A massive papier-mâché skeleton, puppeteered by professionals, loomed large this year during Mexico City's Día de los Muertos parade, which ran along the capital’s main Reforma Avenue. Onlookers cheered as the macabre figure, dressed in a ruffled costume with a wide-brimmed flowered hat atop her intricately decorated skull, veered toward one side of the crowd and then the other. Children delighted at “La Catrina’s” beckoning bony fingers, shouting at the puppet masters to guide her closer.

Every year in Mexico, during the festive days leading up to November 1 and 2, people paint their faces as detailed skulls, build altars in their homes, and decorate central plazas with distinctive folk art that is deeply rooted in tradition. But while the imagery has become iconic, every year, the design of Día de los Muertos evolves, as Mexicans find new ways to celebrate and honor those who have passed.

La Catrina, the day’s most recognizable image, is a depiction of a high-society woman who has met her maker. She represents something between the fear induced by her skeletal form and festivity in the comical way she is typically portrayed, making her a perfect symbol of the Mexican holiday. Today, she appears in paintings, window displays, and costumes all around Mexico, but the playful figure is only about 100 years old.

La Catrina was originally conceived of in the early 1900s by newspaper illustrator and printmaker José Guadalupe Posada, who was famous for his satirical cartoons lampooning political figures as skeletons and skulls, or calaveras. The image of the wealthy La Catrina in her big hat—historically, only the wealthiest Mexicans wore hats—was his way of showing that death does not discriminate against anyone, rich or poor. 

In Mexico, mocking or rejoicing in the concept of death has always been a way to make it feel more familiar. As the poet Octavio Paz famously said, the Mexican “jokes with death, he caresses her, he sleeps with her, he celebrates with her; she is one of his favorite toys and his ever-lasting love.” Posada’s comical lithograph of La Catrina was quickly adopted into this national consciousness, already so familiar with death. When artist Diego Rivera, inspired by Posada’s etching, painted her into the mural “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park,” Catrina’s legacy was solidified and she became the referential image for death across the country. 

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Like the humorous La Catrina images and costumes, the design elements of Día de los Muertos—sugar skulls, cut paper banners, and orange marigolds that adorn home altars and storefronts—remind Mexicans of the transient nature of life. “Outside of Mexico, people may think we are making light of the dead,” says visual artist and indigenous cultural activist Chak Ceel Rah. “But it’s not about celebrating, it’s about dealing with our fear of death.”

This year, parade organizers put together special homages to the victims of the September 19 earthquake.
In rural areas, families visit cemeteries, spending hours decorating graves with bright, fragrant marigolds to guide the spirits of their loved ones to their altars. Across the country, people build ofrendas, or altars to the dead, in homes and public spaces, adorning them with flowers, pan de muerto (a sweet bread topped with doughy crossbones), and elaborately painted skulls made of sugar or chocolate. Historically, families would ask artisans to cut the names of the family members who had passed into tissue banners for their ofrendas; these days papel picados (colorful, cut paper banners), typically depicting Catrina’s face or dancing skeletons, festoon the city centers.

The ephemeral nature of the flowers, fragile papel picados, light pan de muerto, and spun-sugar skulls are as much a call to enjoy life’s fleeting sweetness as they are a reminder of the closeness of death.

But as culturally integral as that duality is, its manifestation continues to evolve. The origins of the holiday can be traced back to the Mayan harvest celebrations, but it wasn’t until the 1920s, in the wake of the devastation of the Mexican Revolution and subsequent civil war, that the modern sentiments toward death began to dominate the holiday. The decorated sugar skulls, for example, are a vestige of an ancient practice made modern. They were introduced, Rah says, by the Catholic conquerors to discourage the Mayan practice of exhuming the bones of ancestors to clean and decorate them, before putting them back underground.

Even the parade is a new concept in the capital. The effort was inspired by the opening sequence in the 2015 James Bond film Spectre, which depicts a fictional procession of spookily costumed people marching through the city center. Seeing the opportunity to create a Mardi Gras–style tourist attraction, the Mexican government brought the fictional parade to life in 2016.

But this year, the parade took place barely a month after the September 19 earthquake that devastated the city, claiming the lives of more than 300 people. In response, the city put an emphasis on making the parade bigger, more colorful, and more festive. “We needed to do something more joyful to be a distraction for people to enjoy after the earthquake,” said Mario Arenas, a costume designer for the parade.

By continuing to forge a connection between the present and the afterlife, with design and ritual both somber and celebratory, Día de los Muertos affirms the impermanence of life while ensuring the proper care of one’s spirit after death. 

>>Next: A Design Lover’s Guide to Mexico City