Mike James: A Gringo’s Guide to Dia de Muertos – Part One

by on October 31, 2022 · 2 comments

in Ocean Beach, World News

Author in a Sugar Skull T-shirt – Mexico City 2022

By Mike James / Special to the OB Rag

[Here is Part 2]

At midnight, October 31st marks the beginning of the Day of the Dead. The direct Spanish translation is Dia de los Muertos, but in Mexico it is more commonly known as Dia de Muertos. The holiday falls on November 1st and 2nd.

In its present form Dia de Muertos is a fairly recent Mexican tradition and can be traced back to the late 1930’s to the Presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas. Càrdenas in an effort to create a united national identity, sought to promote Dia de Muertos that would encompass the indigenous interpretation of the Roman Catholic holidays of All Saint’s Day (All Hallow’s) and All Soul’s Days.

By removing Catholic religious iconisms and replacing it with the elements associated with the indigenous population, the holiday has been embraced by Mexicans and its popularity is spreading internationally.

The origin of All Saint’s Day can be traced back to the Roman Catholic practice of replacing pagan holidays with religious holidays. In this case the pagan holiday was known as Samhain, an ancient Celtic festival where it was believed the veil between the dead and the living was the thinnest.

In a convoluted way, this belief is now important in the Dia de Muertos tradition.

Ofrenda at Castillo de Chapultepec – Mexico City 2022

Dia de Muertos is a time for families across Mexico to be closer to their loved ones who have passed. In some ways it is like an annual family reunion. In many Mexican homes and the gravesites of the deceased, families create ofrendas, altars to the dead and as a meeting place between the living and of those who have passed.

Upon the altar are images of the deceased and items associated with them. Food and drink are also placed on the ofrenda to be shared with the dead. The most common food is tamales and a sweet bread known as Pan de Muertos, Bread of the Dead.

For the deceased adults, their vices are not forgotten, mezcal and cigarettes can be found on their ofrendas.

Some historians connect the offering to the ancient Mexica (Aztec) practice of burying the dead with food to ease their journey in the underworld. The use of burying the dead with items that would be useful in the afterlife can be found in numerous cultures around the world.

Bosque de Chapultepec – Mexico City 2022

An important element of the ofrendas are Marigold flowers. The bright and fragrant Aztec or Mexican Marigold, known as cempazúchitl in the indigenous Nahuatl language, is said to attract the dead. Paths made from the flower are placed directing the dead to the ofrenda. Historians are able to trace the use of the cempazúchitl in Mexica religious festivals.

Another common element of the ofrenda is the calaveras. These are sugar or clay representations of the human skull. The edible form is known as sugar skulls. In pre-Columbian times, skulls and skeletons symbolize rebirth into the next stage of life. The edible sugar skull confection and Pan de Muertos are readily available for purchase around Dia de Muertos.

Artistic renderings of the sugar skull on t-shirts and other merchandise are internationally popular and are sold throughout the year.

The blue La Catrina with author

One of the most iconic and popular features of Dia de Muertos is La Catrina, a tall female skeleton wearing a fancy hat with feathers. During the festival, millions have their faces painted as skulls, while others include wearing formal wear in the style of La Catrina. While the use of the skeleton has been internationally used as a symbol of death for ages, the origin of La Catrina can be traced back to the turn of the last century.

The skeleton has also long been used as a universal macabre statement, that no matter your status in life, that death is the great equalizer.

In that tradition, Mexican illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada used skeletal characterizations as a political statement to show that while a person may attempt to exhibit a superior exterior appearance, in the end we are all the same, just bones. Around 1910, he created his most famous engraving entitled Catrina La Calavera Garbancera.

La Catrina rendention

The figure of a woman’s skull wearing a fancy hat satirized upper class women, wife’s of politicians under the dictator Porfiro Diaz, who wore the latest fashions of Paris and often used massive amounts of makeup to hide any sign of their indigenous ancestry.

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central – By Diego Rivera

A few decades later, Diego Rivera used conceptual renderings of Posada’s La Catrina in his murals. One of Rivera’s most famous murals,“Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda” features La Catrina. Created in 1948, the mural was painted in the lobby of the Del Prado Hotel in Mexico City. While the hotel was destroyed by an earthquake in 1985, the wall of the mural was spared.

La Catrina with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera as a young boy

It was moved nearby and the Museo Mural Diego Rivera was built around it La Catrina from that mural has become the model and inspiration used for the Dia de Muertos icon.

La Catrina and the sugar skull are now some of the most internationally recognized symbols of Mexico.

Tomorrow’s article will highlight the growing popularity and the evolution of the Day of the Dead.
Mike James is an Ocean Beach resident and community activist. He is currently traveling in Mexico and is documenting Dia de Muertos in Mexico City and the nearby state of Puebla. More photos and stories of his travels to Latin America can be found on his Gringo in Paradise Facebook group and Instagram profile

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Frances O'Neill Zimmerman November 1, 2022 at 6:41 pm

A wonderful article on Dia de Los Muertos in Mexico.
I went to Oaxaca for a week in late October 20 years ago, a few years after my husband had died young after losing a terrible struggle against lung cancer. That Oaxacan experience was profound, poignant, beautiful and consoling, even though I am Anglo. Over three days souls of the dead are believed to return to visit their living families who gather at flower-and-candle decorated gravesites in cemeteries to share memories, food, music and strong drink. In the afternoon of the third day, November 2, church bells toll, signaling the end of reunion for yet another year. It is heartbreaking. I think Dia de los Muertos is Mexico’s gift to the world.


Mike James November 6, 2022 at 3:48 am

Hola Frances,
Thank you.
I hope you were able to read the final installment of the guide. I was able to experience some of the same things you did in Oaxaca.

I agree that Dia de Muertos is a gift from Mexico, if properly understood. You were fortunate to be able to inmerse yourself in the tradition while in Oaxaca.


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