Día de Los Muertos Makeup & Origin
It wasn’t until I was going to college that I actually felt a connection to Día de Los Muertos and fell in love with it soon after. As an artist, the power of its images opened up a whole other level of understanding of this holiday for me. I grew up in a Mexican household that didn't actively celebrate it in the traditional way, but the gist of this holiday wasn't lost on me. When I was a small child, my mom used to take my sister and me for picnics at the cemetery as a way of embracing the natural cycle of life and death. At the time, I didn't understand the meaning of it, but when I started to really appreciate the art and symbolism of this tradition, that's when the connection was made.
What is Día de Los Muertos?
Also known as "Day of the Dead" in English, it's a fascinating holiday celebrated in Central and Southern Mexico that honors the memories of our deceased relatives and friends. In contrast to the dark, fright-filled Halloween, this day is a cheerful and festive event in which we commemorate the dead with altars adorned with marigolds, candles, music, offerings ("ofrendas") and edible sugar skulls (“calaveras”).
Over the recent years, I’ve noticed that calaveras have rapidly become more popular in the Western world. Today their presence seems more commonplace and can be found on clothing, accessories, tattoo designs, jewelry, art and, most of all, social media. While it’s nice to see these symbols worn and displayed proudly as beautiful pieces of artwork, I’ve come to find that their actual origin and meaning haven’t gained nearly as much recognition.
When I first learned that this was originally an Aztec tradition, I wondered why there were Christian symbols embedded into the art form. Then I discovered religious syncretism (a blend of beliefs and traditions) and how it impacted the Natives' way of life.
Origin & History
Before the Spanish arrived, the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica already practiced ancestor worship. The Indigenous Natives of the Americas were largely made up of agrarian societies and would thank their ancestors for blessing them with fertile land that provided them good harvests, as well as fertility in women for healthy, strong offspring. If you look at a modern day altar, you’ll still find earth elements (e.g. fruits, vegetables and flowers) included in its decorations.
In the 1500s, Cortés and his men traveled to Central America with an agenda to accomplish several things for the Spanish King: acquire treasure, claim land for Spain, and convert the conquered Natives to Christianity. But even after seizing the Aztec Empire, they were still met with great resistance.
The Spaniards rejected the Natives' pagan rituals, deeming them to be contaminated and convoluted. And even though the Aztecs were overthrown by this foreign coalition, their beliefs were so deeply embedded in their views and way of life that their creed remained undeterred. Eventually, the Spanish allowed them to continue making offerings and altars for ancestor worship but, in return, forced them to move their celebrations from post-harvest season to dates recognized by the Roman Catholic church: Nov 1 "All Saints Day" and Nov 2 "All Souls Day" As a result, their practices were syncretized into today's version of Día de Los Muertos.
Who is La Calavera Catrina & why is she important?
“La Calavera Catrina” is a zinc etching created by artist, José Posada, who had a very political reputation and was an advocate for people oppressed by powerful figures. He was known to draw laughing calaveras in his work to illustrate the mockery of death. This concept was emphasized in his Catrina as her elegant clothing represented the upper class and her skeleton a commentary that death was a neutralizing force and no amount of wealth would save anyone from it. Posada has been quoted to say that "in death we are all equal...rich, poor, we come to the same fate."
It's also been said that this portrait was meant to mock Natives who denied their own heritage by adopting the lifestyle of European aristocrats. It was his way of reminding people to remember their Aztec roots and how Día de Los Muertos came to be.
Modern Day Celebration
The continued practices of this holiday have slightly evolved over time and are done a little differently depending on the region it’s being celebrated in. Generally, families will visit the cemetery to decorate the graves of their loved ones with ofrendas like ceramic or sugar skulls, pan de muerto, flowers, pictures of them when they were alive, their favorite food, and water to quench the spirit's thirst as well as candles to guide them back home. After decorating, the families spend time gathered around the grave in prayer, telling stories, and playing music in memory of the deceased. The notion is that the souls visit their family to bless them with guidance and November 2nd is specifically set aside in observance of that belief.
However, not everyone can visit a grave site during the evenings in certain places, e.g. the United States. As a result, customs had to be modified leaving families to build altars in their home and neighbors would hold festivals to celebrate as a community – which I personally find to be very beautiful and unifying.
Lastly, my favorite part – the makeup! As most of us know, skulls play a big role in calavera makeup and that's because they originally symbolized death and rebirth in Aztec culture. During my research, I found that they viewed life on earth as a temporary illusion and death as a positive step forward into a higher level of consciousness. Skulls served as a positive and significant symbol of this belief that remained in their customs.
As a makeup artist, I've observed the calavera artistry evolve over recent years and now there are so many interpretations of it! Usually, certain elements are embedded in the designs like flowers, crosses, spider webs, glitter, hearts, jewels and vibrant colors. But the overall theme of death and life intertwined remains. This juxtaposition of symbols and color illustrate the visual dichotomy where neither can exist without the other.
What I hope to impart on you is that Día de Los Muertos is not merely a day in which we remember the dead, but also a reminder that we shouldn’t fear death as it is our inevitable destination and to celebrate being alive for as long as we're meant to. So, the next time you see someone with calavera makeup or happen to attend a festival, I hope you remember what this tradition represents and its eternal message to truly live life at its fullest.