Offerings at the Palacio Municipal at La Calaca Festival (photograph by Reka Nyari)
David Metcalfe, author, researcher and founder of Liminal Analytics — Applied Research Collaborative — co-authored this piece. Dr. Andrew Chesnut is Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and is author of the only book on Saint Death in both Mexico and the US, Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint. Metcalfe and Chesnut direct Skeletonsaint.com, a site dedicated to news and analysis of the fastest growing new religious movement in the Americas.
The season of death is at hand. Halloween and the Mexican death trinity of Day of the Dead, Catrina Calavera (Skeleton Dame), and Santa Muerte (Saint Death) engage millions of South and North Americans in rituals that reconnect us with our own mortality. Leaving aside the jack-o-lanterns and trick or treating of our own childhood in the United States, we will try to answer one of the two questions that invariably come up during our presentations on Santa Muerte. What is the relationship, if any, among Saint Death, Catrina Calavera, and Day of the Dead? The other question that always arises is “Do you believe in the Bony Lady?”
Let’s first take a look at the member of the Mexican death trinity who has been in the limelight during the past three years, especially with her cameo appearance in the critically-acclaimed TV series, Breaking Bad. Santa Muerte is a Mexican folk saint who personifies death in the form a female skeleton. Whether as a votive candle, gold medallion, or statue, she is typically depicted as a Grim Reapress, wielding the same scythe and wearing a shroud similar to the Grim Reaper, her male ancestor. Folk saints, unlike official Catholic ones, are spirits of the dead considered holy for their miracle working powers. However, what really sets the Bony Lady apart from other folk saints is that for most devotees she is the personification of death itself and not of a deceased human being.
A Santa Muerte devotee commemorating Day of the Dead in Tutitlan, on the outskirts of Mexico City (photograph by Angus Fraser)
Family of Santa Muerte devotees commemorating Day of the Dead in Tutitlan, on the outskirts of Mexico City (photograph by Angus Fraser)
In Mexico and Latin America in general, such folk saints as Jesus Malverde, Juan Soldado, and San La Muerte (the Argentine cousin of Santa Muerte) have millions of devotees and are often petitioned more than the Catholic saints. These homegrown saints are united to their devotees by nationality and often by both locality and social class. A Mexico City street vendor explained the appeal of the skeleton saint to her saying, “She understands us because she is a battleaxe (cabrona) like us.” In contrast, Mexicans would never refer to the Virgin of Guadalupe as a cabrona, which is also often used to mean “bitch.” All the major shrines in Mexico and the U.S. celebrate annual feast days with the specific date varying. Doña Queta’s historic shrine in the notorious barrio of Tepito will commemorate its thirteenth anniversary on Halloween. One of the most recent trends among devotees of Death on both sides of the border is to integrate the Bony Lady into Day of the Dead commemorations.
In the United States, All Hallows’ Eve has taken on the darker image of Halloween, with haunted houses, horror movies, and the dead returning for trouble rather than tradition. However, in Latin America and Europe, where Catholic cultural influences have remained strong, the first and second of November continue to hold their ancient ties to festivals associated with sacred remembrance of the dead’s continued presence in the world of the living. In Mexico, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead,) which falls on November 1 and 2, is one of the most anticipated holidays of the year. It’s a time to reconnect with deceased friends, family members, and ancestors in a festive spirit of remembrance and celebration.
Graves decorated at San Miguel for La Calaca Festival (photograph by Reka Nyari)
Offerings at the Old Cemetery at La Calaca Festival (photograph by Reka Nyari)
Sugar skulls and other offerings at La Calaca Festival (photograph by Reka Nyari)
Before the Spanish conquest, the Aztecs dedicated most of the month of August to their goddess of death, Mictecacihuatl. As part of the overarching suppression of indigenous religion, the Catholic Church exorcised Mictecacihuatl and moved the date to coincide with All Saints’ Day (November 1), which is also known in Mexico as Day of the Innocents as it focuses on deceased infants and children, and All Souls’ Day (November 2), which centers on departed adults. Visits to the cemetery to bring offerings to the dead, such as candles, flowers, and food, are common, along with offerings left at home altars. which often involve more festive celebrations including the striking sugar skulls, calaveras de azúcar, and pan de muerto (bread of the dead), which have become a familiar icons of the tradition. Adorned with the name of a deceased relative, the skulls are eaten as a reminder that death is not a bitter end, but rather a sweet continuation of the natural cycles of life.
Born around 1910, from the pen of the famed Mexican illustrator José Guadalupe Posada, Calavera Catrina is another skeleton that has become central to Mexico’s cultural identity. As a satirical cartoon created to mock the early 20th-century Mexican upper classes, Catrina bears a remarkable likeness to images of Carmen Romero Rubio, the second wife of Porfirio Diaz, whose turbulent presidency was one of the main targets of Posada’s mordant satire.
Family of Catrinas at La Calaca Festival (photograph by Reka Nyari)
Posada’s popular illustrations were deeply embedded into the cultural context of the Mexican Revolution (1910-20), the first great revolt of the 20th century, which led to a new appreciation of the indigenous past. The symbolism of the skeleton, which in indigenous traditions throughout the Americas represents the continuation of life’s cyclical turn, proved to be a potent and resonant image for Mexican cultural independence from its Eurocentric elite.
Although Posada’s illustrations show skeletons dressed in European finery as a critique of his elite compatriots, by the time the famous Mexican muralist Diego Riviera included Calavera Catrina in his well-known work “Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda” (“Dream of a Sunday afternoon along Central Alameda”) in 1948, she had become a symbol of the integration of pre-Hispanic and post-colonial ideals. Today, she remains an important icon of Mexican national identity, and speaks to the unique and fruitful cultural dialogue which continues in Latin America.
Statue in the city of Puebla, Mexico, dressed in seven colors, representing miracles on many fronts (photograph by Angus Fraser)
Photographs courtesy Santa Muerte devotee Christian Crowe of Santa Ana, California
The culture of Mexico is not alone in its remembrance of death, but it is unique in how, more often than not, these commemorations are more festive than somber. Whether it is under the scythe of Santa Muerte during the festivities of Dia de los Muertos, or in the “elegant” image of Calavera Catrina, death plays a central role in the daily lives of Mexicans, and continues to provide a potent image for the inevitable cycles of life. Running through it all is a sense of humor and empowerment, which takes the hard lessons of death and embraces them with a fullness that is often surprising to those unfamiliar with these traditions.
On a personal level, death becomes an image of rebirth and renewal, while in the wider culture the imagery and practices associated with these traditions keep the memory of the nation’s turbulent history alive. For a nation with such striking disparities between rich and poor, death also becomes the great equalizer, where even billionaire Carlos Slim succumbs to Santa Muerte’s leveling scythe. As they say in Mexico, “death is just and even-handed for everyone since we will all die.” For many, this unalterable truth provides a strong reason to celebrate life while there is still time.
Skull with clock eyes at La Calaca Festival (photograph by Reka Nyari)
Argentina’s most famous San La Muerte temple in the town of Empedrado, Corrientes (photograph by Fabiola Chesnut)
“Thanks, San La Muerte, for the favors received,” plaque at the temple in Empedrado, Argentina (photograph by Fabiola Chesnut)
A version of this article previously appeared on the Huffington Post.