Mexican Folk Art 101: Skulls and Skeletons

Foreword

Folk art is rooted in the history and culture of every nation. The appreciation of folk art strengthens the identity of a community and enables it to take pride in its history. In many cases, the appeal of folk art is centered on the many ways it can connect people across cultures, in the sublime appreciation of the different ways in which a community has chosen to express themselves. Folk art comes alive in different ways for different individuals and different reasons. This series will explore the many ways in which that 'magic' happens.


This series will be divided as follows:


  1. Mexican Folk Art 101: Ancestry and Modernity

  2. Mexican Folk Art 101: Alebrijes

  3. Mexican Folk Art 101: Tree of Life

  4. Mexican Folk Art 101: Skulls and Skeletons

  5. Mexican Folk Art 101: Huichol Art

  6. Mexican Folk Art 101: Talavera Pottery


Skulls, and to a lesser extent skeletons, occupy a prominent place in Mexican culture. Skulls are most often associated with the tradition of the Day of the Dead, which is a two-day celebration on November 1st and 2nd. The skulls are often adorned with colourful flowers, butterflies, and other patterns. The skeletons, on the other hand, are often depicted dressed with traditional Mexican clothing, or are dressed in modern garb. The Day of the Dead can seem somewhat unsettling at first glance, but it is actually a celebration of the cycle of life and not as depressing as the name might suggest. The Day of the Dead and its depictions of skulls and skeletons were popularised outside of Mexico, in part thanks to animated films such as 20th Century Fox’s The Book of Life and Walt Disney’s Coco (Lopez, 2021).


Dia de Muertos. BBC News Mundo. 20th Century.

Skulls and skeletons are often present in altars that families construct to honour their dead loved ones, who are invited to come back from the underworld to the land of the living to celebrate with the family, eat their favourite dishes and even drink their favourite beverages (alcoholic or not). Altars are a mixture between pre-Hispanic cultures and modern Mexican culture, and often feature pre-Hispanic foods such as mole sauce, which is made with cacao beans and chilli, and mezcal (Lacunza, 2020). Skeletons are even present in the food, there is a type of bread called the ‘pan de muertos’ or bread of the dead, which has decorations in the shape of bones on top of it. Skulls are a part of the altars in the form of sugar skulls, which, like their name suggests, are sugar sculptures in the shape of skulls. Skulls can also be made out of chocolate, a popular alternative that can offer different flavours other than plain sugar. These are decorated with colourful sugar paste and the name of a person can be added to the forehead as well.


Skulls and skeletons are also important aesthetically, especially during the Day of the Dead celebrations. Great care is put into every piece to make them as beautiful as possible, a concept that might seem contradictory at first given that these are representations of death. In Mexican culture, however, there is a belief that beauty can be found even in death, even when the outward signs of beauty are gone. During the celebrations of the Day of the Dead, those that are alive are hosting a party in memory of their deceased loved ones and these guests of honour do their best attire to celebrate. Even when skeletons and skulls are ‘naked’, the decorations on the bone confer aesthetic pleasure.


Ofrenda del Dia de Muertos. Gabriel Perez. 20th Century.

The depiction of death as a colourful entity developed as a mixture between indigenous beliefs from before the Spanish conquest and Catholic beliefs from after the conquest (Rommo, 2021). In fact, this celebration has "pre-Hispanic Aztec rituals tied to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, or the Lady of the Dead, who allowed spirits to travel back to earth to commune with family members" (Rommo, 2021). Given the importance of the Day of the Dead in Mexican culture, UNESCO declared it to be an intangible cultural heritage in order to preserve the festivities (UNESCO, 2008). Altars are often decorated with cempasúchil flowers, and the vibrant yellow of its petals is often reflected in the yellow decorations on the sugar skulls and sometimes the same colour is used in the clothing of the skeletons placed on the altars. While the skulls are often made of comestible ingredients, they can also be made out of papier-mâché, ceramic, and cardboard. The same is true for skeletons, as there are many techniques used to make them, though skeletons are not usually edible even when placed in altars.


One of the most famous depictions of a skeleton in Mexican culture is José Guadalupe Posada’s Catrina, an illustration of a skeleton wearing a Victorian, wide brimmed hat with feathers. This illustration was described by Posada as a "‘democratic death’ given that death will eventually find everyone, rich or poor, white or not, in the end everyone will become a skeleton" (Fuentes, 2018). The name Catrina is the feminine version of the word catrin, which was used to denote a man dressed in an elegant way (Fuentes, 2018), and in fact the male version of the Catrina is known as a Catrin, with Catrines and Catrinas as the plural forms.


La Catrina. Jose Guadalupe Posada. 20th Century.

Sometime later, in 1947, Diego Rivera included the Catrina in a mural titled Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central or Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Central Promenade (Fuentes, 2018) in which the Catrina is seen wearing a feathered serpent around her neck. The feathered serpent appears to be an allusion to the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, who was the creator god that brought wind and rain, and who is known as Kukulkan in the Mayan tradition.


Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central. Diego Rivera. 20th Century.

Another important skull in Mexican culture is the so-called ‘calaveritas literarias’ or ‘little literary skulls’, which first appeared in the 19th Century and which continue to be popular. The name highlights the importance of skulls as a reminder of the ‘democracy of death’ and its inevitability. These are short, often satirical, texts that poke fun at serious situations and remind the reader that death comes for everyone in the end and there is no escape from it. These little literary skulls are popular gifts among friends and relatives during the Day of the Dead as well (Fuentes, 2018).


Catrina. BBC News Mundo. 20th Century.

It often seems as though modernity is continuously attempting to push any thoughts of death out of mind, as though the mere mention of it was enough to turn an otherwise happy day into a gloomy one. Skulls and skeletons in Mexican culture are in direct opposition to that erasure of death in everyday life as they are gentle reminders that life is temporary and only death is certain. Their importance lies in those reminders and in their silent encouragements to spend more time enjoying life, trying out new things and finding new experiences. They also offer comfort after death has come by highlighting the bond that exists between life and death and by bringing the message that death is not the end of a relationship, but rather an opportunity for new and exciting celebrations.



Bibliographical References

Fuentes, Yngrid. (2018, October 30). La Catrina: de dónde viene la popular calavera que se usa en México para celebrar el Día de Muertos. BBC News Mundo. https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-america-latina-46039695


Lopez, Oscar. (2021, November 1). ¿Cómo celebra México el Día de Muertos? The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/es/article/mexico-dia-de-muertos.html


Olguín Lacunza, M.A. (2020, October 30). Día de muertos, combinación prehispánica y cristiana. UNAM. https://unamglobal.unam.mx/dia-de-muertos-combinacion-muy-apasionante-prehispanica-y-cristiana/


Romo, Vanessa. (2021, October 31). Why marigolds, or cempasúchil, are the iconic flower of Día de los Muertos. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2021/10/30/1050726374/why-marigolds-or-cempasuchil-are-the-iconic-flower-of-dia-de-los-muertos?t=1657320705360


UNESCO. (2008). Indigenous festivity dedicated to the dead. https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/indigenous-festivity-dedicated-to-the-dead-00054

Visual Sources

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Analicia Garcia Priego

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