The ancient Mexican holiday
el Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead icons, Catrin and
Catrina, Frida and Diego, el Corazon del Muerte, calaveras, Day of the Dead
by Denise Alvarado
This article discusses the ancient Mexican holiday Dia de
los Muertos or Day of the Dead. Included is a description of art characteristic
of Day of the Dead, such as papel picado, and free papel picado
patterns. There is also information about how to make a Day of the Dead altar,
and introduces some traditional Day of the Dead Mexican folk art images such as images of Diablo from Oaxaca.
Artists such as the Castillo family from Puebla, Enrique Badez of San Miguel de
Allende, and the archetypal images of Mary Carmen from Mexico City are featured.
Día de los Muertos is a holiday
rooted in the ancient past of
Mesoamerica. My ancestors were in awe of the eternal
cycle of life and death and believed in the need for sacrifice to assure the
continuation of life. The Aztecs of past honored those who have passed on with
great feasts, sacrifice, ritual, dance, and sacred art that depicted their
beliefs and customs. After the trauma of the Spanish conquest, their beliefs
persisted by adapting them to the holidays of the Christian calendar. Although
much of the ancient indigenous religions were lost, the core aspect of the days
of the dead was kept.This core consists of the altar with offerings to
Aztecs believed that there were three places where the spirits of the dead
rested. The warriors who died in battle went to the paradise of the Sun God.
Those who died drowning went to the paradise of the Rain God, Tlaloc, and those
who died by natural causes went to Mictlán.
The butterfly holds a special place in the
lives of indigenous peoples of the New World.
At least two of the many Aztec deities were personifications of Lepidoptera
Xochiquetzal ("precious flower") and Itzpapalotl ("obsidian butterfly).
Xochiquetzal, for example, was a mother goddess, a goddess of love, flowers, and
fine arts. She was a symbol of beauty, fire, and of the spirits of the dead. She
was seen as the patron goddess of domestic laborers, and of warriors killed in
battle. According to legend, Xochiquetzal trailed young warriors into battle and
joined with them at their moment of death, clutching a butterfly between her
Many of the
symbols found on the altars of today are the result of the melding of Spanish
and indigenous art and religion. The indigenous cross of the four cardinal
points became the Christian cross, and the Tree of Life became the Garden of
Eden. The Spanish brought elements of the Feast of Fools associated with
carnival (farewell to flesh) where everything is open to ridicule,
mockery, and lightheartedness. Everything is equal in death; no one escapes its
inevitability. This is where the humor and whimsy associated with today’s los
Días de los Muertos in all likelihood stems from.
During the latter part of the colonial period, the people began making brightly
colored sugar –candy skulls and exchanging them between family and friends as
tokens of affection. These became common items alongside the image of Guadalupe,
flowers, water, bread, and copal. Skeleton dolls made of clay and paper maché
were made depicting people in everyday activities. These dolls soon became a
part of tradition. I come by this tradition honestly through the lineage of my
father, King Xicotencotl of Tlaxcala and Pedro de Alvarado, theSpanish
Day of the Dead calaveras are often made in
honor of Catrin and Catrina,
whose popularity is attributed to renowned author, journalist and political cartoonist
Guadalupe Posada, (1852-1913). He is credited for popularizing the Day of the
Dead celebrations, especially through the creation of skeletal cartoons that
capture the Mexican attitude towards death. The names Catrin and
Catrina mean "dapper," and they reflect the fashions of the times.
Diego Riverawas a communist and
world-famous Mexican painter,
and husband of
Frida Kahlo, also a
world-renowned Mexican painter.
Diego Rivera was a notorious ladies' man who had fathered at least two
illegitimate children by two different women. In fact, he was still married when
he met art student
Frida Kahlo, whom he
eventually married. Their mutual infidelities and his violent temper led to
divorce in 1939, but they later re-married.
Frida Kahlo was a Mexican painter, who
has achieved great international popularity. She painted using vibrant colors in
a style that was influenced by indigenous cultures of Mexico as well as European
influences that include Realism, Symbolism, and Surrealism. Many of her works
are self-portraits that symbolically express her own pain. Kahlo was married to
and influenced by the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and shared his Communist
views. Although she has long been recognized as an important painter, public
awareness of her work has become more widespread since the 1970's.
La Llorona is a popular Hispanic icon. According to the folk
tale she murdered her two children to avenge her husband and is destined to roam
the earth searching for her children.
Day of the Dead Altars
The Day of the Dead is a time for the dead to return home and visit loved
ones, feast on their favorite foods and listen to their favorite music.
In the homes, family members honor their deceased with ofrendas or offerings
which may consist of photographs, bread, other foods, flowers, toys and other
Traditional altars consist of an arcos, or arch, covered with marigold
flowers. The arch is symbolic of a head board for the bed of those who have died
and also of the arching heavens. Most altars also contain images of the Virgin
Mary, pictures of the dead, momentos that remind the living of the dead,
candles, and food and drink for the returning spirits. Day of the Dead altars customarily use papel picado
apel picado ("perforated paper") is the Mexican art of papercutting into
elaborate designs. The use of paper as an decoration in religious activities can
be traced back to pre-Hispanic Mexico. Using bark from the mulberry and wild fig
trees, the Aztecs made paper called amatl. This paper was cut into intricate
designs and used as banners and flags as decoration for temples, streets, homes,
and fields during religious festivities. For example, rubber-splashed paper
banners were commonly utilized in association with the rain gods (Palfrey,
The designs are commonly cut from tissue paper using a guide and small chisels,
creating as many as forty banners at a time or by by folding the tissue paper
and using small, sharp scissors. Common themes includes birds, floral designs,
and skeletons. In addition to being used for
Day of the Dead
celebrations, they are displayed for Easter, Christmas, weddings, quinceañeras,
Colors schemes selected for papel picado are frequently linked with
specific festivities. Sky blue or pink and white are commonly chosen for
celebrations in honor of the Virgin Mary, yellow and white for patron saints.
Vibrant pink, orange and purple are the key tones employed for ofrendas
(offerings) associated with the Day of the Dead. Shades of purple are also
widely used at Easter. The colors of the Mexican flag--red, white and green--are
set aside for venerating the nation's patroness, La Virgen de Guadalupe, as well
as for commemorating Independence Day, September 16. Rainbow hues are
appropriate for Christmas and non-religious festivities. Here is an image of how
papel picado is used on a Day of the Dead altar (Palfrey, 1999).
The altar includes four main elements of nature - earth, wind, water, and fire.
Earth is represented by crop: The Mexicans believe the souls are fed by the
aroma of food.
Wind is represented by a moving object: Tissue paper is commonly used to
Water is placed in a container for the soul to quench its thirst after the long
journey to the altar.
Fire is represented by a wax candle: Each lit candle represents a soul, and an
extra one is placed for the forgotten soul.
To make a Day of the Dead altar, you will need the following items:
1. Photo of our Loved One. At the center of the altar is a photograph of the
loved one to whom the altar is dedicated. It is decorated with momentos that
reflect the individual.
2. It is customary to prepare a feast of foods that the spirits will enjoy.
Tamales, mole, pan de muerto, and seasonal fruits are traditionally used, as
well as foods that were favorites of the deceased.
3. Marigold Flowers (Cempasúchitl). In addition, yellow and orange marigolds are
lavished upon the altar. Marigolds are used because of their abundance and their
4. Sugar skulls and calacas (skeletons). The presence of whimsical calacas offer
those in the physical world something tangible that captures the spirit of the
5. Votive Candles. Purple represents pain, pink celebration, and white hope. Use
whatever colors feel right as there is much room for personalization.
6. Grooming items. A bar of soap, a towel, perfume, and the like are placed on
the altar in the belief that the dead ones have been on a long journey and would
like to refresh themselves for the celebration.
Other items such as paper cut outs, images of saints, personal effects of the
honoree are placed at the altar.
Salt is considered the spice of life and is one of the
staples that should be left at the altar.
It is believed that the dead consider it disrespectful to
be greeted by grieving at the altar.
Day of the Dead Skulls
Animal skeletons and skulls are a common
element on the Day of the Dead altars and represent the sacred passing of a
family pet or Animal Spirits. The ancient
Aztecs believed that when a person is born they get a nagual, an animal spirit
companion who would be at their side throughout life as a soul partner. Animals
were honored and revered because they acknowledged the sacred interdependence
between humankind and the animal world. Even today, the indigenous people are
well aware of the fact that without our animal relatives we would cease to
exist. Animal skeletons and skulls are a common element on the Day of the Dead
altars and represent the sacred passing of a family pet or Animal Spirits. Our
animal relatives are appeased with offerings as are our ancestors.
Inspired by this tradition, these hand-painted real animal skulls are for use on
Day of the Dead altars or personal shrines. These skulls are found in their
natural settings, cleaned and painted with bright, traditional Aztec patterns
and adorned with crystals. They are one of a kind and are limited edition,
subject to availability.
If you are interested in a hand painted altar skull, please
BTW, the fabulous song that plays in the intro of
this site is by
Day of the
Dead Artist Statement
Artist: Denise Alvarado
Catrin and Catrina Bride and Groom Calaveras
This Day of the Dead Voodoo doll couple is made in honor of Catrin and Catrina,
made popular by renowned author, journalist and political cartoonist Guadalupe
Posada, (1852-1913). The names Catrin and Catrina mean "dapper," and they
reflect the fashions of the times.
How it was crafted:
This smart-looking couple were made
combining the traditional styles of New Orleans Voodoo folk art and contemporary
Mesoamerican decorative design.
Inspiration: I am inspired by the humor and whimsy
associated with death that this art form portrays.I am inspired by the
myth and archetype of Spanish and Indigenous cultures. Day of the Dead art takes
death out of its shadow and into the beauty of spirit; it is a means of honoring
our ancestors in a manner that is celebratory and lighthearted.
As a New Orleans native and the daughter of two of the best artists in the
world, I was exposed to a wide variety of art forms from the time I was old
enough to be aware. My father was a formally trained medical illustrator (Donald
Alvarado, he illustrated the Gray's Anatomy among other things) and my mother
was largely a self taught painter of folk art, nature, and mystical imagery. I
have held a paintbrush since I was old enough to walk, and have worked in a
variety of mediums throughout my lifetime, including pen and ink, painting,
mosaic, beaded jewelry, Voodoo art, and crafting art dolls.
What draws you to Day
of the Dead art? Día de los Muertos
is a holiday rooted in the ancient past of Mesoamerica, which has rich
historical imagery. My ancestors were in awe of the eternal cycle of life and
death and honored those who passed on with great feasts, sacrifice, ritual,
dance, and sacred art that depicted their beliefs and customs. I come by this
traditional art form honestly through my earliest traceable ancestors, Aztec
King Xicotencotl of Tlaxcala and Pedro de Alvarado, the Spanish conquistador.
When I create Day of the Dead art, I pay homage to my ancestors and to the many
indigenous people who were killed by war and lost in the process of
colonization. May the flame of life smile upon the darkness of death!
"Peace cannot be kept by force,
it can only be achieved by understanding."
- Albert Einstein