The Sugar Skulls (not a band)

Omgirl (I started following her blog because she has “Follow me, I’m hilarious” in big letters on the top of her page) posted about how much she loves October slash Halloween and I have to agree at least one hundred fifty seven percent. This month is one of my all time favorite months. I talked about it last year (with, creepily, the same title post that Omgirl used THIS year), and I will talk about some of it again now, because that’s how much I like this particular month of pre-holiday (especially in Tejas).

Actually, I just really like this picture. I started writing this post because I like this picture so much I want to blow it up and frame it. And I wanted to share it with you again and then write about it again. Because I love it. So this post is more about the history of what’s in the picture than October slash Halloween.

My favorite Tejas special: Calaveras catrinas! You’ve seen some variation of this before. It’s the awesome skull folk-art unique to Mexico. These elegant skulls are used as traditional iconography during Dia de los Muertos celebrations. The history of the holiday, and especially the symbology of the skulls, just fascinates me.

Ah, who am I kidding? It’s the bright colors.

Dia de los Muertos means “day of the dead. It falls on the day after Halloween, November 1st. In Mexico and Latin American communities, it’s a day of memorial for anyone who has passed away, and it’s HUGE. Central and southern Mexico this holiday is extravagent and sometimes insanely expensive.

Also insteresting, Mexican tradition breaks from the Roman-Catholic church on this one, which doesn’t happen a lot. Traditional Catholicism celebrates every SAINT ever on Nov. 1. They don’t celebrate everyONE until the next day, Nov. 2. So the hermanas are doin’ it for themselves. And I get the impression that it’s not a sneaky sneaky thing, unlike santería, which (while in wide practice) is a VERY sneaky sneaky thing.

The main idea of the sugar skulls is basically, no matter who you are (or how fancy you are), you will die. Death is the great equalizer. Even ladies in fancy dresses (see my picture!) look pretty much the same as everyone else when they’re just bones. Or, as the Latin American predecessors (the O.G. Latins) so aptly put it, “memento mori.”

There’s a TON of backstory on the iconography of the calaveras catrinas. And once I started studying them (a mutation of the Aztec icon for the diety who guarded the bones of the dead) I fell into the rabbit hole of all cultural mythology surrounding death. I’m actually, at this very moment, forcing myself to write this post. I have spent hours following link after link, jumping from the Grim Reaper to the archangel Michael to Yama (a Hindu depiction of death which rides a black buffalo and carries a lasso).

I will go, now. I would encourage you to take a few seconds and Google (not Bing! There are no decisions to be made, here.) the elegent skulls. An image search alone is fascinating, but the things this kind of icon communicates about Mexican culture as a whole is about a million times cooler. Death is so bright! It’s so cheerful! I feel like I want to create a new saying based on the “lemons from lemonade” classic to describe what these things symbolize.


Kitsch from macabre!


7 thoughts on “The Sugar Skulls (not a band)”

  1. Hi, I have been reading your blog I don't even remember how I found it but it's interesting how you see the Mexican culture, I grew up in Mexico City.

    You should read about the altar de muertos which is also a tradition around these dates. Every family sets a table with pumpkins, decorations, pictures and their dead relatives' favorite foods and drinks. The tradition says that the dead people will come to that table to enjoy their favorite things.
    Read also about Dia de muertos en michoacan, very interesting.

    Calavera and catrina are the same thing but calavera is for masculine or femenine and catrina is for femenine only.

  2. I don't do it very ften any more, but I had this habit of wherever we went finding out what writers were buried in the area and then go to the grave. There's something joyful and celebratory about being there with them. I once spent a full day going from headstone to headstone looking for Robert Lowell's grave. Didn't find it. Two days later I learned he had been buried in a private family plot that had since ben moved. When I drove tpo wear it was supposed to be there was no indication that there was a burial plot there. But I found it behind a row of pine trees. It made me feel like dancing.

  3. Hi Rae. This is most fascinating! Strangely the more I look at the picture, the more I also somehow like it. too.

    Been catching up on all your posts. Great news about that new job, which sounds absolutely ideal!

    Have a great weekend 🙂

  4. Wow, I'm so honored to have inspired you to write this post. Er, re-write this post. Um, copied your title from last year's post? Well, whatever.

    I am super fascinated by that picture of the skeleton ladies. Can you actually buy stuff like that down there?? I might have to enlist you….

    I remember in my 10th grade Spanish class learning about the Day of the Dead and how Mexican famlilies will go have a huge picnic on the grave of a loved one. And I thought how healthy that idea of death is. We fear our cemetaries. They party on theirs! I like it. And I NEED some of those elegant skeleton ladies!!!

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