Skeletons, Skulls and Mexican Festivals

Catrina Images on china. Market in San Miguel de Allende

Catrina Images on china.
Market in San Miguel de Allende

 

Skeleton in Mexican Folk Art. San Miguel de Allende

Skeleton in Mexican Folk Art. San Miguel de Allende

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

Skeletons in Folk Art. San Miguel de Allende

Skeletons in Folk Art. San Miguel de Allende

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

Effige with Skull Earrings. San Miguel de Allende

Effige with Skull Earrings. San Miguel de Allende

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

Child in Festival Make Up. San Miguel de Allende

Child in Festival Make Up. San Miguel de Allende

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.

Isn’t Mexico Fun?

The door opened and they started filing out.

The door opened and they started filing out.

My wife and I and a friend were walking along one of the cobble stone streets of San Miguel de Allende when a door opened and a man walked out wearing a peacock feathered headdress. He also wore a skull mask and had plastic replicas of human skulls on his knees and elbows. He wasn’t wearing a shirt but it was hard to tell because his skin was painted black and white.

Then the door opened again and a troop of similarly dressed men and women

Banners for March 7 Festival

Banners for March 7 Festival

streamed out like a scene in a surrealistic keystone cops movie. My wife turned to me and said, “Isn’t Mexico fun?”

I thought for a moment I had fallen into one of my own Magic Realism stories (You knew I’d throw that in there somewhere, didn’t you: Owl Dreams, Southwest Gothic Tales, Messages). Fortunately there was a real world explanation. This was the Festival in honor of God the Conqueror. A Christian holiday that I’d never

Somehow transvestites got worked into the mix.

Somehow transvestites got worked into the mix.

heard of, following on the heels of Ash Wednesday.

Representatives from churches all over central Mexico came in to participate. The festival was mostly indigenous dancers who I wouldn’t have known had anything to do with Christianity if it hadn’t been for the banners some of them carried. Somehow transvestites got into the mix along with people dressed as devils, skeletons, and hacienda patrons wielding whips. Mock machete fights started around dusk followed by more dancing. All the while little children were pelting each other with paper eggs filled with confetti.

The next morning I asked the maid in our B&B about the festival. Her English was about as good as my Spanish—not very good at all—but basically what she said was, “Don’t they have Catholics where you come from?”

Isn’t Mexico fun?