Here’s what you should know about Dia de Los Muertos, through the lens of death-embracing artists
Today marks the beginning of November and all things fall-related (and Christmas-related, judging by the holiday displays at major stores). But it’s also Dia de Los Muertos, an important holiday to many communities. A Mexican national holiday, November 1st marks a series of celebrations that actually take place through various countries in Latin America.
Oftentimes, the internet can forget about this traditional day amidst the hullabaloo of Halloween. If you’re wondering what exactly makes up the celebration of Dia de Los Muertos, we’ve gathered some great information from artists who have created amazing work related to this meaningful day.
HelloGiggles chatted with Oscar Navarro (aka “The Art of Sketch”), Francisco Franco, Elvia Rodriguez Ochoa, and Amandalynn about their artwork and the holiday. Here are some things you should know about the day:
1. It’s not about making death scary, it’s actually meant to promote honest conversations about it.
From an outside perspective, it might seem like Dia de Los Muertos is just as creepy as Halloween. After all, people paint their faces to mimic those of skeletons. The tradition takes its inspiration from “La Calavera Catrina,” a piece by printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada. During the reign of President Porfirio Díaz, this female skeleton with a hat that indicated her high class became a symbol of dissent towards the political climate.
The symbol, then, also references class differences. Today, people create catrina (elegantly dressed skeleton figure) faces to continue this tradition but also embrace the inevitability of death.
“Dia de los Muertos is significant for me because it is a day when we confront our own mortality, framed in a positive and healthy light,” wrote Franco in an email to HelloGiggles. “It embraces our ultimate reality and fears, and aids us in confronting and contemplating not only our own fate, but the fate of those who have passed before us. It is a very beautiful idea especially when it leads to catharsis.”
This makes it easier to talk about death openly and honestly. Creating artwork just helps to further that conversation.
2. Many artists continue to put their own spin on Dia de Los Muertos visuals.
Dia de Los Muertos relies heavily on visual components. The biggest of these: Creating ofrendas (or altars) to loved ones who have passed away. These often include paper flowers and trinkets related to the deceased loved one. This tradition also continues to get different twists through art, modern altar-making, and more.
“My work attempts to poke fun at death so that it may lose its sting through humor and fraternization,” wrote Franco. “I also bring in elements of both American and Mexican Pop Culture in order to give it a more modern sensibility. My aim is not to rehash the past, but to bring it up-to-date by adding to the tradition and exploring where those branches might lead.”
Artist Elvia Rodriguez Ochoa has also created altars that include “political or social statements.” She’s used to working with installation and exploring the Dia de Los Muertos traditions “became a way to continue to create installations while reconnecting to my culture by creating ofrendas that mixed traditional items with contemporary practices and materials.”
Modern takes on these traditions can make sure they are kept alive. Plenty of museums and galleries also host events and exhibitions to educate the public.
3. It’s a highly personal display of affection for a loved one.
"Beside illustrating cute skeleton figures, my art also reflects love, joy, and happiness," wrote Navarro in an email to HelloGiggles. "As some of my character[s] represent past family members, I love depicting them living life to the fullest while engaging in something they truly loved. For example, my grandpa, Manuel Navarro loved two things: his fedoras and playing his saxophone. As a tribute to him, I paint fedoras and top hats on all my male characters."
While these symbols might not have the same meaning to everyone approaching an altar, each piece is carefully chosen to pay respect to the loved one. Who they were as a person continues to be celebrated even after death.
“All of my work is inspired by those around me, whether it’s obvious or not,” wrote Amandalynn. “Many secret inspirations from loved ones poor out through my art. The tradition of celebrating ones life through alters and celebrations is similar to depicting their memories through symbols and illustrations in art.”
4. It actually represents an approach to death that goes beyond November 1st.
Just like hardcore Halloween lovers love getting spooky 365 days a year, Dia de Los Muertos offers a viewpoint that’s important to remember anytime of the year. The holiday hinges on the idea that remembering loved ones who have passed away — and celebrating their lives — is a way to make peace with such a deep loss.
“As like Halloween, Día de Los Muertos is all year-long for me,” wrote Navarro. “Every time there is a family gathering we end up talking about past family member as well as our past pets. Hearing these stories makes us have a good time with joy and laughter.”
After all, good memories of a loved one never get old. And no matter the time of year, honoring our loved ones can bring us some solace.