Along with ghouls and ghosts, bags of candy and ticker-tape versions of things that go bump in the night, this year's Halloween themed décor in grocery store aisles are intermixed with skulls. But these are not just your ordinary cranial bones. Instead, they are bedecked with flowers and glitter, bright golden colors and sombreros.
They are known as "sugar skulls" or calaveras and are associated with Dia de los Muertos, or "Day of the Dead. Dia de los Muertos is a hemispheric American holiday celebrated near the end of October or the beginning of November, with the official celebrations taking place on November 1 and 2 by people in Mexico, Guatemala, the United States, and some other South American nations.
But what are the deeper meanings behind the costumes and the wall-hangings? Is there something more happening here than Halloween furnishings and golden color schemes? Are calaveras a significant aspect of Mexican culture or just a another costume?
“Calavera” is the Spanish word for skull, but calaveras in the context of the Day of the Dead bear extra significance. You see them all around Mexico — in poetry and graffiti murals, on shirts and jewelry, in ancient Mexica (Aztec) carvings and modern sculpture on the city streets.
One celebrant I talked to said, “Calaveras remind us to celebrate life, to appreciate that even death is sacred, is alive. ‘La Muerte’ is inevitable, it is a right of passage, it is a place and moment to be experienced now and in the future. The dead are never gone and we should never neglect them. The inevitable, our fate or whatever you call it, cannot be avoided, it must be embraced and danced with. It can even be sweet.”
The ubiquitous symbols of the Day of the Dead — calaveras, elaborate artistic representations of a dead aristocratic woman (La Catrina) and flowers such as marigolds — not only ordain altars in homes and cemeteries, but now find their way into museums, menus, suburban jack-o-lanterns, art shows, clothing, and Hollywood runways.
“For me El Dia de los Muertos brings my family together to remember and celebrate the life of those past” said Aida Hernandez, a Houston-area Spanish teacher. “To us it is a very spiritual time and not just about the decorations or food.”
Traditionally, the Hispanic holiday is a time for families, neighborhoods and whole towns to come together to remember and celebrate the life of their ancestors, both young and old, and to make offerings (ofrendas) to the deceased. The celebrations are many and varied, but they often include elaborate processionals, graveyard ceremonies, skulls, stories of those passed and parties to celebrate the continuum between life and death.
Influenced by the Roman Catholic celebration of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days the holiday has its roots in Mayan and Aztec customs and beliefs. The modern manifestation of the Day of the Dead is an amalgamation of various cultural influences both North and South of the border. As MSNBC’s Alyx Kaczuwka reported:
The pre-Hispanic, Mayan and Aztec roots of the Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, date back at least 3,000 years. Traditionally associated with Mexico, its celebration has also found its way around the world, often blending in local cultural influences with the ancient traditions.
What is really fascinating is how the Day of the Dead is not only an alleviating institution for indigenous and Spanish speaking cultures in the Americas, but also now for el Norte in the co-opting of the holiday’s symbols in U.S. pop culture. Whereas the mestiza/o — mixed race — or Indian community of the Americas originally took the initiative in developing these meaningful mixes as a way to reclaim a sense of agency in a cultural milieu that demeaned their social standing and stripped them of power, now non-Latina/o Americans are embracing the symbology of the celebration as a way to give material voice to the new mestizaje being created in the crucible of contemporary, trans-local, American culture.
As reported by the Associated Press: In the last decade or so, this traditional Latin American holiday with indigenous roots has spread throughout the U.S. along with migration from Mexico and other countries where it is observed. Not only are U.S.-born Latinos adopting the Day of the Dead, but various underground and artistic non-Latino groups have begun to mark the Nov. 1-2 holidays through colorful celebrations, parades, exhibits and even bike rides and mixed martial arts fights.
However, this co-option and adaptation of this traditionally Mexican holiday is not without its misunderstandings and misappropriations. On Facebook, my friend Paola recently shared the following post speaking to her heart and her passion for this holiday. To best understand what the symbols mean, without just dressing up in a costume that seems chic and "authentic," please read her first-hand account below: