During last year’s Day of the Dead celebrations, a vibrant pageant of skeletal forms stretches along the wide avenue of Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma. Señoritas wearing huge skull masks shimmy along in colorful skirts while Mayan and Aztec warriors, dressed in leopard skins and wearing black and white makeup, beat drums and gesture exuberantly with spears and clubs.
The sprawling Mexico City parade — the capital will hold two big ones this year, Oct. 27 and Nov. 2 — was inspired by a fictional version depicted in a 2015 James Bond movie. The boisterous procession is a relatively recent addition to the festivities surrounding Day of the Dead, and it reflects a centuries-old fascination with skulls and skeletons.
“The roots of Day of the Dead go back to pre-Hispanic Mexico,” says archaeologist Gary Feinman, curator of Mesoamerican anthropology at the Field Museum.
Celebrated for several days leading up to Nov. 2, Day of the Dead might more accurately be termed Days of the Dead, as the traditional holiday starts Oct. 31, with the three-day event commemorating the brief and honored return of those who’ve died. But images of skulls and skeletons have long been woven into the everyday fabric of Mexico’s traditional culture. Throughout the country are constant reminders that life is brief, and death is the other side of life.
Here are some places in Mexico City where the enduring fascination with skeletons lives on during Day of the Dead and well beyond.
Catrina and ancient Aztecs
In Mexico City, the Day of the Dead parade passes by the Diego Rivera Mural Museum. The museum’s centerpiece is Rivera’s massive “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central,” a mob scene of Mexico’s national leaders, poets and politicians, heroes and villains. It’s a surreal homage to the city’s past and present. In the dead center of this brilliantly colorful canvas is Catrina, the ladylike skeleton dressed in Victorian finery. She’s the most popular of all the calaveras, the happy, cavorting bony folks popularized by artist José Guadalupe Posada. Catrina’s prominence in Mexican culture is undisputed: She’s the first lady of skeletons.
Day of the Dead festivities extend all the way to Chapultepec Park, once the resort of Montezuma and other Aztec rulers. In the park and throughout the city, you’ll see tables set with miniature, multicolored skulls, costing maybe a dollar. Some of these skulls are made of clay, others of sugar or chocolate.
The skull display is reminiscent of the grisly arrays on Aztec skull racks, huge wooden frames holding the impaled heads of enemies or sacrificial victims. One such skull rack from the early 1500s was excavated in 2015 near the foundation of Mexico City’s Metropolitan Cathedral, across the street from the ruins of Tenochtitlan, the magnificent Aztec metropolis trashed by Cortez and his conquistadores in 1521. The Spanish used stones from the fallen city to build their Christian place of worship.
An ancient stone representation of an Aztec skull rack is on display at the museum of the Templo Mayor, the double-headed pyramid that stood in the center of Tenochtitlan. This museum showcases another recent find: a clay statue representing Mictlantecuhtli, the skull-headed Aztec lord of the underworld, the veneration of whom some scholars believe gave rise to Day of the Dead celebrations.
In the magnificent National Museum of Anthropology, there are many stone statues representing death, including an assortment of small figures with grinning skulls from what’s believed to have been an Aztec “death cult.”
Santa Muerte, beloved and feared
“Put your phone under the seat,” muttered Armando Gutierrez-Cornejo, my driver. His voice was firm but urgent. We were passing through a rough part of town, home to thieves, low-level narcos and other denizens of Mexico City’s demimonde. Young hombres on bikes circled, ready to grab anything, even from moving vehicles. “Rats,” Gutierrez-Cornejo sneered, “with two legs.”
We stopped at a squat brick building at Nicolás Bravo 35: the National Sanctuary of the Angel of the Holy Death. For devotees of Santa Muerte — whom they address as Bony Lady, Pretty One, Little Girl and other endearing diminutives — this sacred space provides a magical, macabre connection with the supernatural. The Bony Lady is known for taking care of business, which may include snaring a lover or whacking a competitor. Along the sanctuary’s walls are pictures of Christian saints as well as many images of death personified, grim reapers holding scythes, reminiscent of cover art of an Iron Maiden album.
In a side chapel, a big man in black kneels in mystic communion with Santa Muerte, a skeleton dressed in white and blue who resembles a cross between a bride and the Virgin Mary. A dog snarls fiercely behind a metal gate. The family tending the somewhat grim gift shop avoids eye contact while sternly performing their duties. We were glad to get back into daylight.
Incense drifts through the air, vendors call out to customers and young men offer to cleanse my soul with a chicken (or, for a reduced rate, an egg).
We’re in a section of the Mercado de Sonora, or Sonora Market, called the Witches’ Market, where the scent of copal, a tree-resin-based incense, lends a ghostly ambiance to the death masks and Day of the Dead paraphernalia.
Medicinal herbs line the aisles. Sacks of bark and wood chunks are advertised as cures for inflammation, tumors and just about every conceivable bodily and spiritual ailment.
We see many representations of Santa Muerte. Her image shows up on votive candles and some other products, a kind of trademark or brand.
As part of Day of the Dead festivities, Mexican families visit gravesites, which Feinman explains “is a way to connect living and supernatural worlds.”
Friends and family clean the gravesite and maybe eat a little something. They then leave the deceased his or her favorite things: tequila or mezcal, cigarettes and, for children, perhaps the ever-popular candy skulls.
Leading up to the Day of the Dead, bakeries are full of pan de muerto, or “bread of the dead,” a sugar-sprinkled egg loaf with bonelike imagery baked on top.
On Day of the Dead, large tamales made of cornmeal and chicken wrapped in banana leaves are cooked in underground ovens with hot rocks.
When the cooking is finished, the tamale is lifted out of the ground — exhumed, if you will — and eaten to remember those whose spirits have briefly returned from the other side and, just as importantly, to celebrate life in the face of death.