Colorful Calaveras for the Day of the Dead

The art of the Day of the Dead

During the month of October, Mexican families begin preparations for Los Dias de los Muertos, or The Days of the Dead, when the living invite the dead to return, share a feast, reunite with the family and the community, and serve as messengers between the living and the gods. While customs vary from region to region, and even from village from village, ritual practices include making altars for the deceased, creating paths with flowers or candles from the cemetery to the home to help the dead return, cleaning cemeteries, placing offerings on graves and tombstones, holding vigils, ringing bells, and begging for food. The celebration, which begins at midnight on October 31st and ends on November 2nd, is a festive commemoration rather than as a solemn day of mourning.

The calavera (a word that means “skull” in Spanish but that has come to mean the entire skeleton) has become one of the most recognizable cultural and artistic elements of the Day of the Dead festivities. Made from wood, paper maché, sugar paste, or carved bone, the colorful calavera are joyful, celebratory figures.

Flor del Muerto

Marigolds symbolized death in Aztec culture in pre-Columbian Mexico. These flor del muerto are used to decorate ofrendas and are painted onto the calaveras.

Skulls and Marigolds, 2012 by LVM (Collection: Smithsonian Latin Center)

Sugar skulls

Calaveras are traditionally made from sugar, representing the sweetness of life. The calaveritas de azucar are part of the ofrenda, and symbolize the “earth” element along with other foods such as mole, chocolate, and pan de muerto (bread of the dead). The other elements are represented in the form of water, set out to quench the spirit’s thirst after its long journey; candles, which signify fire; and papel picado, or tissue-paper cut-outs, whose fluttering movements represent wind.

Sugar skulls or calaveritas de azucar from “La Catrina” store in Ventura, California (Collection: Smithsonian Latino Center)
Ofrenda night (2012) by LVM (Collection: Smithsonian Latin Center)
Dolores Olmedo in front of a Tzompantli (Pre-Colombian display of skulls) recreated with sugar skulls (Calaveritas) (Collection) Museo Dolores Olmedo

La Catrina

The Catrina, a female skeleton wearing fashionable clothes (from catrin, the word for elegance), is the most recognizable female figure for the Day of the Dead. The Catrina figure first appeared under the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz (1876-1911) as a satire of the upper classes. Made famous around 1910-1913 by the engraver José Guadalupe Posada, the catrina reminds the living of the ephemerality of vanity and serves as a reminder that in the end, all becomes dust.

Catrina Figure, 2013 (Collection: Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Madrid)
Catrinas made of clay (Collection: Museo Dolores Olmedo)
Papier-mâché Skeletons representing "La Catrina" with Frida Kahlo in the background. Detail of "Un cuento de cartón" Day of the Dead Offering, 2011 (Collection: Museo Dolores Olmedo)

Pop culture calaveras

Mexican artists reinterpret calaveras as part of the Day of the Dead celebrations and in their own work. Modern calaveras sometimes incorporate pop culture motifs or refer to contemporary politics.

Pop Culture Calavera, LVM, 2012 (Collection: Smithsonian Latino Center)

This paper-maché equestrian calavera is part of a 132 piece set called “The Atomic Apocalypse” which includes specific references to 20th-century politics, such as the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the Biafran War (1966–70), and the regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1901–89) in Iran.

The Atomic Apocalypse, 1980/1989 (Collection: The British Museum)

Casillas’ street art calavera incorporates the idea of water in relation to life and death. “Water is essential for earthly existence and in its absence [...] we could not simply exist.”

80% H2O, Abner Aod García Casillas, 2013 - 2014 (Collection: Hidro Arte, SACMEX)

For Mexicans, the festive Days of the Dead are celebrated much differently than funerals, which are solemn occasions. Over time, the holiday has transformed into a jubilant display of art, literature, and music. The playfulness of contemporary Day of the Dead calaveras represent a counterpoint to the solemnity of death, and a reminder to all to savor the vibrancy of life.

By Maude Bass-Krueger
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