The Day of the Dead is a very colorful Mexican holiday, which is also commemorated in other Latin American countries. Although it has its roots in pre-Hispanic times, it is later syncretized with aspects of the Catholic religion and is usually celebrated between November 1st and 2nd, since it is believed that the souls of children return to visit on the 1st, and those of adults, day 2.
Before the arrival of the Spanish, the cult of death was one of the fundamental rituals of ancient Mexican culture. The day of the dead in the indigenous worldview implies the temporary return of the souls of the deceased, who return to the world of the living people to live with their families and share the food that is offered to them on the altars to honor their memory. Family members decorate graves and headstones; Offerings consist of plates of food, water, drinks, cigarettes, flowers, colorful handicrafts, skulls, and toys for the souls of children.
When the Spanish arrived in America, they brought their own traditions with them and celebrations to commemorate their deceased, where the dead were remembered on All Saints’ Day. By imposing their religion on the Mesoamerican natives, a syncretism was created that mixed European and pre-Hispanic traditions, making the Catholic festivities of All Saints and All Souls Day coincide with the similar ritual of the ancient Mexicans around the cult of their ancestors and death, thus creating the current Day of the Dead, in which part of the worldview of the ancient Mesoamericans still survives.
On November 7, 2003, UNESCO distinguished the indigenous festival of the Day of the Dead as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, considering that this festival is: “One of the most relevant representations of the living heritage of Mexico and the world, and as one of the oldest and strongest cultural expressions among the indigenous groups of the country”.
Posada stood out as an engraver, a technique with which he made a series of famous skulls that have been associated with this festivity. These images are a fusion of pre-Columbian, colonial, and popular visions. His most famous work is The Garbancera Skull (also known as “Dapper Skull” or “Elegant Skull”) (1), whose figure, within his visual discourse characterized by folkloric, costumbrist scenes, social and political criticism, was conceived as a criticism of women who tried to hide their indigenous origins by imitating European fashions.
The Garbancera Skull was taken up by Diego Rivera and renamed as La Catrina, an image that he included in his mural Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central Park (2). In the center of this composition stands out a group of characters, including the painter, self-portraited as a child together with La Catrina, Frida Kahlo, and José Guadalupe Posada with a cane. From then on, this figure went down in history symbolizing Mexico and its Day of the Dead throughout the world. La Catrina is the most popular Mexican representation of death in that country.