Día de Muertos, Mexico’s early November celebration of the deceased, is a feast for the senses. From cemeteries filled with bright orange marigolds and red cockscomb, to the sounds of trumpets from comparsa parades, to the smells of street food stands, the celebration draws you in fully.
What struck me most about witnessing the celebration in Mexico a few years ago were the layers of visuals that adorn this annual event – banners, skulls, florals and the elaborately decorated altars. It’s an explosion of colour, texture, materials and artisanship at every corner.
Here is a breakdown of the five most important visual elements of Día de Muertos and their origins.
Images listed without a source are my own.
1 - Ofrendas
Ofrendas are altars to the deceased and a core element of Día de Muertos. Virtually every home, school, cultural institution and public place create an ofrenda. Even food courts can have them!
Ofrendas are put together a few days before the main celebrations on November 1st and 2nd in anticipation of visits from the souls of deceased family and friends.
Much like Día de Muertos itself, ofrendas have a blend of Catholic and Pre-Hispanic indigenous elements. The altars are typically colourful multi-level structures representing heaven, purgatory and hell. At the core of ofrendas, typically on the top, are offerings for deceased loved ones. Each person’s photo is placed alongside their favourite earthly food and drink in the hopes that they’ll be able to enjoy them again when visiting. Their personal belongings are sometimes placed as well.
Other items that adorn ofrendas are pan de muerto, sweet bread decorated with skulls and bones, papel picado or punched paper banners, candles that represent guiding light towards the living world, crosses, fruit and sugarcane and skulls, and of course, flowers, especially marigolds which are believed to help guide the deceased to the ofrendas.
The origins of ofrendas are often said to be indigenous, though modern researchers attribute the altar concept more to Catholic practices with a sprinkle of indigenous elements. As with many indigenous practices in countries colonized by Europeans, the Aztec celebrations of the dead were attempted to be eradicated by the Spanish and replaced by the Catholic All Saints Day which occurs on November 1st.
So while today’s ofrendas are likely not directly descended from indigenous practices, there are still elements of the tradition that have direct ties to the Aztecs. For example, Spanish chronicles from the time of Mexico’s colonization do mention an Aztec practice of leaving food offerings for the deceased.
2 - Papel Picado
Papel picado is the traditional Mexican art of punching shapes into paper to form illustrations. Sheets of punched paper are made into banners and strung up on streets, in homes and on ofrendas. Papel picado is used for all major celebrations in Mexico, not just Día de Muertos, but plays a big role in this specific event. Some even claim that if an ofrenda doesn’t have papel picado, it doesn’t correctly invoke colour and wind for the deceased.
This paper craft seems to have originated from the Puebla region in the early 20th century. Paper arrived in Mexico in the late 19th century from China via Europeans. As the presence of paper increased around the country, locals weren’t always sure what to do with it. News spread that paper was used in China for art, specifically for practices like cutting figures into it, which inspired Mexican artisans.
As paper arrived mainly in the city of Puebla, it was artisans from nearby Huixcolotla who first started selling their punched paper creations in markets. Eventually in the 1970s, papel picado became more commonly known around Mexico and started being used on Día de Muertos ofrendas as a asymbol of wind. Today it is made from colourful tissue paper or plastic punched in multiple sheets at a time with scissors, knives and chisels and can be bought in paper shops or at markets.
For a beautiful ode to papel picado, see the opening scene of the 2017 Disney/Pixar film Coco, with illustrations created by Mexican illustrator Ana Ramírez González:
3 - Alebrijes
Alebrijes are wood carvings of real and fantastical animals painted with intricate colourful details. Though not strictly associated with Día de Muertos, alebrijes were recently tied closer to the celebrations by the previously mentioned Disney/Pixar movie Coco.
Surprisingly, the practice of carving and painting alebrijes is very recent, originating in the 1940s. They were first created by Mexican artist Pedro Linares after he dreamt of alebrijes while sick. Without access to medical help, Linares fell unconscious and, in a feverish dream, saw a forest with wild, fantastical, colourful creatures chanting the word “alebrije”. When he recovered, Linares began crafting these imagined creatures from paper mache and cardboard, gathering so much attention that Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera eventually commissioned him to make alebrijes especially for them.
Though modern in concept, alebrijes did go on to get an indigenous Mexican folk art twist. When Linares brought the colourful creatures back to his native Oaxaca province, local Manuel Jimenez took notice. Jimenez began creating alebrijes out of copal wood in the pre-Hispanic woodcarving tradition of the indigenous Zapotec culture of the region.
Today alebrijes continue to be mostly made out of wood and are available widely in markets and art shops.
4 - La Catrina
If you’ve ever seen a tall skeletal figure dressed in European women’s clothing from the early 20th century as part of Día de Muertos celebrations, you’ve likely seen La Catrina.
The original and most famous representation of La Catrina is a woodcut made by illustrator José Guadalupe Posada in 1910 to accompany his satirical poems called calaveras. (Calaveras also means skulls in Spanish.) With his Catrina (catrin meaning ‘elegant’ or ‘dandy’), Posada was commenting on the social situation in Mexico in the early 20th century, especially on indigenous Mexicans who abandoned their roots by pretending to be European.
Posada’s Catrina is dressed in elegant upper-class European clothing with a large hat with flowers and feathers mocking the European fashion that was eagerly copied by Mexican elite at the time. Like many of Posada’s other satirical illustrations, La Catrina is depicted as a skeleton to remind everyone that all humans are made of the same bones and will die, regardless of social status and wealth.
Mexican painter, and Frida Kahlo’s husband, Diego Rivera further depicted La Catrina in his 1940s mural on Mexican history called “Dreams of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park”. He even went so far as to paint himself as a child holding hands with La Catrina with Frida Kahlo just behind them. Rivera’s Catrina echos Posada’s original illustration with the elegant clothing and large feathery hat.
Today, La Catrina is a key figure in the Día de Muertos celebrations, with many dressing as her for local celebrations and parades. There are even La Catrina pageants, such as the one we attended in Oaxaca. Locals create elaborate Catrina costumes and participate in a contest to be voted the Catrina of the year.
5 - Calaveras
This brings us to our last key element of Día de Muertos, and perhaps the most common visual: calaveras. Calaveras, or skulls, come in all shapes, sizes and formats during Día de Muertos celebrations, from sugar figurines to face painting to carvings and depictions on papel picado.
As with all the design elements we’ve already explored, the use of calaveras in Mexican culture comes from a blend of indigenous and colonizing European roots. The Aztecs placed a lot of importance on death and the afterlife, worshipping a goddess of the afterlife and keeper of the dead, Mictecacihuatl. Depictions typically showed Mictecacihuatl as a skeleton with a floral crown.
Skulls were also an important pre-Hispanic decoration element, often made out of clay.
After the arrival of the Europeans, skull motifs faded but were maintained in the form of sugar or chocolate skulls. As the team behind the Day of the Dead resource explains, sugar skulls were commonly made from a Spanish technique called alfeñique which came to Mexico from in the 17th century:
“The paste, made of eggs, powdered sugar, lemon juice, and plant extracts, was poured into the clay mold to make the figurine. This would then take a day to dry. Once dry, the figurine is assembled and decorated with brightly colored icing, and shiny colored paper is used for the eyes and forehead. These production methods continue to be used by Mexican artisans to this day, though industrial production methods are also widely used.”
In recent years, Mexican skull imagery has even made its way to the international scene. Sugar skull Halloween costumes have become common in North America, and the 2015 James Bond movie Spectre opens in Mexico City during Día de Muertos. In the first scene, Daniel Craig is dressed in a skeleton outfit and mask making his way through a Día de Muertos parade, passing large skeletal figures and many people dressed in Catrina-like costumes.
Amazingly, this parade didn’t previously exist and was created just for the movie. Inspired by the film, Mexico City held its first James Bond-inspired Día de Muertos parade a year later and the concept has since spread to other cities as well.
While the five visual elements listed in this post are key components of Día de Muertos, they are by no means an exhaustive list of visuals that appear during the celebrations.
Día de Muertos is truly an exceptional event, and rightly listed as Mexico’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. If you ever get the chance to visit Mexico around the time of the celebration, you won’t regret it.
In the meantime, for a delightful taste of the event, I recommend the movie Coco. With Mexican illustrators, artists and musicians collaborating on the film, it’s a beautiful ode that references all of the five visuals mentioned here and more. Even Mexicans embraced the film, as was evident from murals and characters during our visit.
If you’re ever in Oaxaca for Día de Muertos, Fundación En Vía has tours that support local entrepreneurs and artists
Day of the Dead is a beautifully designed site with lots of information by Mexican writers
Also from Google Arts and Culture, a bigger resource on Dia de Muertos