People in San Miguel de Allende love skeletons. Effigies wear skull earrings. Indigenous dancers have skull headbands and knee guards. Children’s faces are painted to make them look like stand-ins for Walking Dead. Every parade features a dancing skeleton or two.
The Mexican infatuation with human bones isn’t limited to parades. Skeletons star in Mexican cartoons. You’ll find plates and platters in any public market featuring skulls and skeletons. There are folk art sculptures of skeletons riding bicycles, cooking, repairing shoes and doing just about any mundane thing you can think of. An Iconic figure of a well-dressed female skeleton named Catrina is seen all over Mexico. She was originally a sort of high-art political cartoon satirizing the life of the upper classes during the reign of Porfirio Diaz.
Everyone has heard of the Day of the Dead. It was co-opted into a Catholic-like holiday by the Spanish when they conquered the indigenous people 500 years ago. They managed to convince the local tribes to move the celebration from the ninth month of the Aztec Solar Calendar (approximately the month of August) to November first and second to
correspond with All Saints Day and All Souls Day. They also whittled the festival down from one month to only two days.
The Day of the Dead is a lot more like Halloween than Easter, and in case anyone’s forgotten, Halloween is not a Christian holiday. On day one of the celebration, people don wooden skull masks (Calacas) and dance in honor of relatives who have passed away. The wooden skulls are also placed on altars dedicated to deceased family members. If you have a
sweet tooth, you can eat a sugar skull with the name of a dead friend or relative printed on the forehead.
On the second day they take the party to cemetery where the festivities continues into the night. Then the living go home and the dead go back to being dead until the whole thing starts again next year.
Back when the Aztecs were running things in Mexico, the festival was presided over by Mictecacihuatl, “Lady of the Dead.” Skeletons were part of practically every celebration (as they are today in Mexico). Skulls were considered to be good luck and the gods were often portrayed as skeleton men. Quetzalcoatl (a star of the Aztec holy pantheon who saved the world by feeding his heart to the sun) was said to have stolen
bones from the god of the underworld and used them to create the different races of mankind. Things might have worked out better if he’d stopped before he made the Europeans.
Indigenous legends are so much more interesting than the spooky stories that thrilled and frightened us when we were young. That’s why everything I write has a little bit of indigenous magic woven into it. Owl Dreams has a modern day Choctaw witch who changes identities instead of changing into animals. Southwest Gothic Tales includes a story about a modern day version of a Navajo skinwalker, and two more novels under contract with Pen-L Publishing, that deal with psychotropic drugs, secret societies and curses that might be magic or practical applications of psychology.
So far I haven’t worked skeletons into the mix, but who knows. If I spend enough time in Mexico I might give it a try.