Being an expat in Mexico: Dia de los Muertos

November 1, 2015

Halloween is finally here and you are preparing your last minute costume. A quick scroll on the Internet and Instagram and the decision is made: let’s paint our faces as “Mexican skulls”!
Beautiful, coloured and charming, Mexican skulls or, to be precise, Catrinas, have become more and more popular in last few years, also thanks to the contribution of Tim Burton and Disney. Living as an expat in Mexico, I was looking forward to the end of October, expecting to see people dressed as Catrinas walk along the streets, and cemeteries full of people celebrating with candles and altars. Well, it is not exactly how it works.

I am not disappointed, but I have also discovered the fascinating culture that lies behind these beautiful skeleton masks, and the real celebrations that took place from the 30th of October to the 2nd of November. So, while you finish painting your face, let me show you briefly what I have discovered.

El Dia de los Muertos

The Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Deads, is the result of the incredibly harmonised mix of pre-Colombian native cultures and the Spanish Catholic tradition. It is celebrated everywhere in Mexico, however with some differences from region to region. The Dia de los Muertos is actually composed of two different celebrations: the All-saints night, that generally takes place on the 1st of November, and the Day of the Dead Relatives, on the 2nd. During those days, families, schools, and even entire cities build altars dedicated to the members of those passed away. The altars can be found in squares, inside the houses or directly inside cemeteries, all around the tombstones.

This celebration of the deads is of great importance for Mexican people. Since the prehispanic colonisation, Mexican native populations celebrated it at the end of August, as a metaphore of the change of the season and of the end of the harvesting in preparation for winter. The warrior nature of some of those populations, as well as the fierce natural elements that often hit them, made Death particular significant for those cultures. Celebrating Death was not only a way to exorcise it. Death was seen as the fundamental element of Life itself, and for this reason the Mesoamericans represented and celebrated it often and with devotion. After the advent of the Spanish, the festivity was kept and adapted to Catholicism, being moved to the end of October and, with time, acquiring new fascinating elements. Nowadays, massive decorations are put in the main squares of each city, and during the festivity the cemetery is animated by ferias de huesos, a proper fair with food, crafts and music.
Mexicans put a lot of care in these events, and everything that is created and done during those days has a special meaning and a reason.

Dia de Los Muertos Altars

Altares de los muertosImage source: www.visitatuxpan.com

Movies show us Dia de los Muertos celebrations in the form of big village parties with people dancing around fountains and flowers while dressed as Catrinas and Calaveras. I was quite disappointed in discovering that this is not exactly true. On the 1st and 2nd of November, Mexican families join to clean and decorate the tombstones of the beloved dead ones. The atmosphere is not gloomy nor spooky. It is a happy family moment, full of bright colours and flowers, often accompanied with the smell of delicious food and popular banda songs coming from the stands. They build the so-called altares, huge altars with pictures of the dead, their favourite food, candles to show them the way home, orange flowers (for the earth), white flowers (for the sky) and purple flowers (for the mourning). They also put – and eat – coloured sugar and chocolate skulls (calaveras de azucar) and pan de muertos, a sweet that some theories affirm derives from cannibalistic rituals of indigenous populations (spooky!). Luckily, nowadays pan de muertos is nothing more that sweet bread coated in sugar and covered with bone-looking decorations.

Calaveras de azucarPan de Muertos

Image Source: www.espana.gastronomia.com and www.launion.com

Simply D E L I C I O U S.
All around the altars, Mexicans put one of my favourite piece of craftsmanship: papel picado. Bright, coloured, beautifully carved china paper sheets, symbolizing the union between life and death. Papeles picados, in fact, represent daily scenes, such as dancing, riding, kissing and partying, but with skeletons. The fine cuts and the bright colours conquered me since day 1, and I now have my entire living room decorated with garlands made from them. Despite the macabre characters, these garlands are funny and lively, and give a very ironic touch to the room!
Papel Picado

Image source: www.melissaguerra.com

Catrinas & Calaveras

By now you must be wondering where do those beautiful skeletons come from. With my great surprise, I discovered Catrinas, the female skeletons dressed as fine ladies, originally were not connected with the Day of the Deads.

Catrinas were born during the Mexican revolution as a satire of the complicated political and social situation of the country. La Catrina is the bitter-sweet representation of the lower classes of Mexican population, oppressed by corruption, bad politics and inequalities. Newspapers used these lively skeletons to illustrate the  news, from crime news to political ones, and often even gossips. Catrinas

Catrinas were also accompanied by short, satirical, poems that were at the same time celebrations of the deads and political denounces: the calaveras. With time, catrinas became one of the symbols of the Mexican popular culture, until Diego Rivera (Frida Kalo’s husband) reinterpreted them, dressing them with fine clothes and jewels and ordaining them to be the inspiration for generations of artists all around the world, thanks to their beauty and their bitter yet poetic essence.

What do Mexicans do with Catrinas, then? Nowadays, Catrinas have found their place in the celebrations for the Dia de los Muertos. Schools, offices and municipalities organise parades of people dressed as catrinas, or exhibitions and contests with catrinas and calaveras decorated by the population. The decorations are intense, bright, coloured, extremely original and often contain satirical references to news, politicians and events.

Mexicans are extremely proud of their fascinating culture and are generally very inclusive with foreigners. They love to share their culture and genuinely appreciate when a foreigner tries to join them in celebrations. For this reason, Mexicans are usually happy to see catrinas so famous all around the world, although they are not so enthusiastic about some reinterpretations,when they lose the magic and poetry of their culture.

Even though they are not what I expected, the celebrations for the Dia de los Muertos, so lively, full of music, food and decorations have conquered me. The Mexican approach to life and death is full of poetry, genuine and fascinating. Coming from a culture that fears death and only associates it with black, darkness and sadness, the mix of orange, pink, purple, blue, green and yellow hit me like a train. The beauty of the decorations, the pale light of the candles and the atmos-fear of the celebrations in the cemetery literally opened my eyes on a melancholic yet tranquil vision of death, making me feel a complete new dimension of spirituality: one where the elements of life, death, culture, religion and nature melt into each other in a beautiful swirl of colours, smells and music.

Note from the editor:  Hey, it’s Elisa, your founder and editor. I had to jump in and add a brief paragraph to this article. I am so in love with Dia de Los Muertos Mexican festivity and I love the way my expat friend depicted it. I definitely must hop on a plane and get there next year: of course, I’ll do so to visit my friend ;D
But let’s get straight to my point: cultural appropriation. Over the last few years, we’ve seen Day of the Dead key images being used and abused in every occasion, especially Halloween. Also, cultural appropriation implies that you’re using symbols and traditions of a culture you are oppressing or have oppressed and exploited in the past.
First and foremost, as Silvia said, Mexican people aren’t necessarily bothered by the diffusion of their culture. And I will also back her opinion by linking this article by Violetta, a dear blogger-friend from Mexico. She’s clearly not bothered by it, being a Mexican herself. She also doesn’t seem to consider wearing calaveras as negative. I suggest you read her article because is irrefutably key in understanding the issue.
I also think that what makes wearing other cultures symbols ok is to know what’s behind those symbols: this way, it becomes tribute, not appropriation.

Now, I have never dressed as Catrina for Halloween or a native American, or a German girl in traditional clothing. And I don’t think I ever will dress up as anything like that, but I do own quite a few things “Day of the Dead” themed. I have just recently got a super cool tote bag featuring a huge grinning Calavera and a gorgeous Day of the Dead iPhone cover with a sweet Catrina. I can’t wait for someone to ask about them, I will  tell them about the history behind it: that’s how you build awareness around a culture.

Day of the Dead Sugar Skulls

Sugar skull tote bag from Redbubble.com – I think my kitty loves it! 

Newspaper image source: www.culturacolectiva.com – Featured image source: queretaro.quadratin.com.mx

Silvia

About the Author

Silvia

Professional expat, procrastinator, amateur photographer, Professor of Information Technology Law, constantly undecided, in love with languages and cultures. Born and raised in Italy, I left Rome for London and I am currently living in Northen Mexico... at least until the Northen wind will blow again! My Flickr account

Follow Silvia:

Leave a Comment:

All fields with “*” are required

Leave a Comment:

All fields with “*” are required