A massive papier-mâché skeleton, puppeteered by professionals, looms large during Mexico City’s annual Día de los Muertos celebration, which sees a parade run along the capital’s main Reforma Avenue. Onlookers cheer as the macabre figure, dressed in a ruffled costume with a wide-brimmed hat atop her intricately decorated skull, veers toward one side of the crowd and then the other. Children delight at “La Catrina’s” beckoning bony fingers, shouting at the puppet masters to guide the skeletal figure closer for a peek up close.
Every year in Mexico during the 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 to celebrate Día de los Muertos, the cultural celebration that can be traced back to the time of the Aztecs. Today, the tradition is integral part of Mexican identity: In 2008, Day of the Dead festivities became the first cultural practice from Mexico added to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Still, the integral design elements associated with iconic Día de los Muertos traditions evolve every year as Mexicans find new ways to celebrate and honor those who have passed.
La Catrina, the symbolic skeleton
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 the revelry exhibited by 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 during Day of the Dead festivities, 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. 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.
Decorating the altars with skulls and flowers
Like the humorous La Catrina images and costumes, the design elements associated with Día de los Muertos—sugar skulls, papel picados (intricately cut, colorful 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.”
In rural areas, families visit cemeteries, spending hours decorating graves with bright, fragrant marigolds to guide the spirits of their deceased loved ones to their altars. Across Mexico, this native “cempasúchil” marigold is often referred to as la flor de los muertos, or “the flower of the dead.” Throughout 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 their deceased family members into tissue banners for their ofrendas; these days, papel picados, typically depicting Catrina’s face or dancing skeletons, festoon the city centers.
The ephemeral nature of the marigolds, 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 in Mexico, its manifestation continues to evolve.
Modern Día de los Muertos rituals
The origins of Día de los Muertos celebrations can be traced back to ancient harvest traditions practiced by Mayan civilizations in Mexico. But it wasn’t until the early 1900s, 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 as we know it today. The decorated sugar skulls, for example, are a vestige of an ancient practice made modern. They were introduced, Rah says, by Spanish Catholic conquerors in an effort to discourage the Mayan practice of exhuming bones of deceased ancestors to clean and decorate them before putting them back underground. Today, colorful calaveras made of sugar and adorned with accessories decorate Día de los Muertos altars and serve as a symbol for honoring the dead.
Día de los Muertos traditions evolve every year as Mexicans find new ways to celebrate and honor those who have passed.
In Mexico City, even the festive Día de los Muertos parade is a new concept. 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 capital’s city center. Seeing the opportunity to create a Mardi Gras–style tourist attraction, the Mexican government brought the fictional Day of the Dead parade to life in 2016.
But the inaugural Día de los Muertos celebration in Mexico City was followed the next year by a grave, unexpected twist. In 2017, 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, Mexico’s traditional observance of Día de los Muertos affirms the country’s cultural outlook on existence: accepting the impermanence of life while ensuring the proper care of one’s spirit after death.
This article originally appeared online in November 2017; it was updated on July 18, 2018, to include current information.