The Day of the Dead has become an increasingly popular celebration, especially in the arts. Originally a festive community celebration that often took place in graveyards, the day set aside to party for the ancestors is reaching international proportions.
Images of skeletons engaged in mortal life activities were not part of the original celebration. That began in 1910, when Jose Guadalupe Posada, a well-known printmaker and publisher, created a drawing of a skull and bony chest of a woman wearing a large hat. The drawing symbolized wealthy Europeans and Indigenous Peoples who were increasingly shunning their own dress and culture. Fellow artist Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo’s husband, took that image and drew the skeleton now called “La Catrina” in her full-length form and finery. La Catrina has come to represent the fact that class wars end in the graveyard.
Popular culture seized La Catrina and ran with her. The disconnect between the original 3,000-year-old celebration and image popularized in modern time has opened the door to looking at death in a very positive and exciting way without offending traditionalists. Lupe Tellez, co-director of Tlanextli Tlacopan Aztec Dancers, said, “So many people look at death as macabre or scary, but it is a natural extension of the circle of the past and where we are going later.”
Asked whether traditionalists find the popularization of skulls offensive, she said, “There are different ways of doing things. Like an onion, peeling it back you see the superficiality (of popular culture), peel it back more and see the Catholic religion, peel it back again and see the indigenous beliefs. There are things that are more sacred—we have a different ceremony almost each week, for a different reason. It’s more of a problem when people dress up as Aztecs or shamans.”
“Skulls have always been a part of our culture, history and art forms,” Tellez said. “Everyone has people who pass on. The Day of the Dead is a philosophy of dealing with grief. We are not the owners of death or grief. Our people have learned to explain the process, especially to our little ones.”
Artist John Huerta, Mexican – American, experienced that process firsthand. “I didn’t know anything about Day of the Dead until I was 17,” he said. Huerta lost his mother when he was very young, and then suffered additional losses. “After my sister died, my grandmother died 10 months later. I went into a very dark time for a few years.”
Having studied art and worked as a painter for years, celebrating the Day of the Dead helped him cope with his grief. La Catrina is featured in most of his paintings, however they all represent the women he has lost. “Each painting represents a piece of them, it is my heart on the canvas. My mom and sister had long hair, every color, every detail means something. And I wanted it to be colorful, because not only do we celebrate in life but in death as well. It helps me not fear death anymore, and that’s what I want people to see in it.”
Another artist, Rob-O, came to the art through the loss of his mother as well, but he expresses himself through the popular art form of sugar skulls. “The history of the sugar skull is, well, they used to use real skulls and at some point sugar was a cheap commodity, so they started making them to honor the dead.”
Rob-O lamented, “My mother was everything; her passing was really hard for me, and my wife recognized I needed something, so she said we should celebrate Day of the Dead. We invited some friends over, made sugar skulls, and built an altar. Everyone we invited had lost a family member. It really helped me get through the situation. It was only two months after her death and it helped a lot.”
For that first celebration, Rob-O made sugar skulls and his life as an artist evolved from that experience. He had previously dabbled in art as a hobby, but had never taken it seriously. With the sugar skulls, everything changed. “We had an event in Sacramento, the Art Walk and it was really basic at the beginning, very simple. I believed in it and was so excited, and we were amazed at how entertained people were with it.”
The colorful and ornate sugar skulls made by Rob-O incorporate many traditional elements of Mexican creation stories. “You see roses in everything, but really the marigold is the strongest scented flower. It helps the soul make its way home. When you have an altar, you light the candle for a guiding light, you make the deceased’s favorite food, reminders of them, their favorite drinks, and a washcloth with soap and water, because it is a long, dirty journey,” he said.
Today, Rob-O believes his mother would be proud of him. He now teaches about sugar skulls and Day of the Dead in schools. “As an American, we look at death as dark. But the skulls are not scary, and it is a celebration. It is a way of remembering those who have passed in a positive way.”
Not all of Day of the Dead art concerns skulls and bones. Guatemalan technology artist Balam Soto makes kites in memory of his grandfather. “Day of the Dead has been one of my favorite celebrations,” he said, remembering his childhood. “I would go to the graveyard and decorate my grandfather’s and grandmother’s grave and I had a lot of fun.”
“I come from a tiny village, a very small town, close to Guatemala City and it was very traditional,” Soto said, adding that his small town was generally a quiet place all year long—until the Day of the Dead celebration. “Then everyone would be smiling, celebrating, laughing. I would go with my grandmother and paint my grandfather’s grave—we’d clean up all around, make it look nice. My grandmother would cook tamales and sweet foods. We would eat at home and then go to the graveyard where people would be laughing and drinking. There were still problems, but there was a sense of the festivity. Instead of crying, you could laugh about it. There is a connection between the dead, the earth, and life. Day of the Dead explains that in a way everyone can understand.”