I’ll be the first one to admit it: We Mexicans do have an almost unhealthy fascination with Death. No, not the classic Death Metal band called Death (well, that I do), but La Catrina herself. As a matter of fact, Death is very present in Mexican culture.
Going beyond the Día de Muertos (not “de los muertos”), allegoric depictions of Death are a common motif found in everyday Mexican folklore, street art and satire. But you know what the funny thing is? Death seems to have become much more popular since I left the country. See, before my visit this last March I hadn’t set foot in Mexico for seven long years, but when I was there I probably saw more representations of Death than during my last visit (which is what gave me the idea to write this piece).
Mexico’s culture surrounding Death has been exported to the whole world and even popularized in movies, most famously in the opening scene from that James Bond movie showing a Day of the Dead parade—which, up until that point, were never a thing. However, Mexico’s tight relationship with Death goes further back, and has its origins in the pre-Hispanic cult of the dead. So let’s dive head first into the very lungs of Mictlán to explore that.
The Aztecs, Maya and several other nations held Death in high regard. For them, Death represented a different stage in life and wasn’t associated with any type of finality, so the dead were not mourned back then like they are now. Still, Death was ever-present in their cultures, and was even of central importance in their mythology, according to which mankind was created from the bones of dead Gods rescued from Mictlán—the underworld—by Quetzalcóatl.
Death remained important even after the merciless introduction of Catholicism, either in the local folklore or by mixing with Catholic culture. During those times, Death was also a common motif in European Christian art and had the purpose of reminding men of their own mortality. That understanding of Death also became prevalent in Mexico during the Colonial Era.
Over the course of the centuries, Catholic tradition mixed with pre-Hispanic belief. The most famous example of syncretism involving the pre-Hispanic reverence of Death and Christian tradition is the Day of the Dead, which is basically our take on All Saints’ Day (and is not “Mexican Halloween”).
The Grateful Dead
The more modern type of imagery and attitude towards Death was basically created by José Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican artist who lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and portrayed politicians of the era as skeletons. He accompanied his drawings with short, cheeky poems about the person in question. This short poems are called Calaveras and are written like short obituaries—only the person it is dedicated to is usually not dead.
Posada’s style created a new way to perceive Death by basically turning her into a comic book character. Remember I mentioned La Catrina in the first paragraph of the article? That is a nickname meaning “the elegant one,” which is what Death is often portrayed as and comes from a caricature by Posada showing her wearing a flowery hat. The cartoon was supposed to mock the upper classes of the time, but by now the character is a traditional representation of Death, so you get an idea of just how important the work of Posada became.
The Día de Muertos
The Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) is the day when we honor the dead in our own particular way. The date itself (Nov. 1–2) is celebrated all over the Christian world, namely as All Saints’ Day. On that date, you will find people in cemeteries in many Catholic countries all over the world. In Poland or in Portugal, for example, it’s huge. What’s different in Mexico is the color and the folklore, as the holiday there is rather about celebrating the lives of the deceased than to mourn their deaths.
There are other peculiarities that set the Día de Muertos apart: For example, altars bearing the likeness of the deceased are built and decorated with all the things that they liked. Also, everything is covered in marigold petals. Both traditions can be traced back to the Mexica peoples. Around the Día de Muertos, it’s also common to give friends sugar skulls with their names on them to symbolically eat their death, and also to write them a calavera.
Death in Mexican Culture
Death, as a cultural motif, really only became popular around the time of the Revolution through the work of Posada. Before that it lived confined to the world of folklore. Now, you’ll find painted skulls sold as souvenirs in most Mexican cities, and there’s even a Día de Muertos parade.
The portrayal of Death in Mexico is, unlike in other cultures, very colorful, and its meaning could be interpreted in different ways. This is my personal understanding of the logic behind it: Posada’s work popularized Death as a Mexican folk motif. Being that Death is so ingrained in the history of the country it was easy for its popularity to take root. And the meaning behind it? Maybe a simple reminder not to be afraid of dying and enjoy life to the fullest. So in a way it’s just our take on the same ol’ Christian idea of reminding people of their own mortality. Memento mori.
Does that relativize Death? I guess in a way it does, but it rather takes the edge off it by making it mundane. That doesn’t make loss any easier to bear or anything, but Mexico is (sadly) a country that needs to be reminded not to worry too much about Death, and poking a little fun at it maybe helps people focus back on the beauty of being alive.
Is this Dark Tourism?
Well, no. Usually, Dark Tourism is loosely defined as visiting sites associated with death and tragedy. However, tragedy does not always involve death and, in our particular case, this is not a morbid celebration of death but rather of life. There’s a life-affirming message in reminding people of their own mortality. However, while traditional Catholic belief uses actual skulls and bones to remind people of it, in Mexico it’s done through colorful cartoons.
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