Santa Muerte

Walking home one night Sarah saw this small Day of the Dead parade consisting of just a few flat bed trucks. Amongst the large figures was Santa Muerte (Saint Death) a folk saint who has a large following in Mexico and the US. She is often depicted as a robed skeleton, usually holding a scythe and globe. Here she is carrying the scales of justice. She is very different to the secular female skeleton figure Catrina (created by Posada) who we encounter everywhere.

We were told that Santa Muerte will grant your wishes, though not necessarily in the way you imagine, and she will always demand something in return. She drives a hard bargain. She is said to be a favourite for those living on the edge of society or those who fear violent death, such as criminals, police, homosexuals and transgender people.


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We happened across these young people preparing for what we first thought was a Halloween costume parade. Here it can be hard to tell what skulls and skeletons refer to, but as we looked more closely we saw many traditional Day of the Dead motifs. Apart from some dressed up as priests there were no religious references.

We were impressed by the care they took over their make up and the creativity of their outfits. As they joined many others in the street, there was an even more complex fusion of traditional indigenous motifs and Halloween. We would expect this as Oaxacan young people are steeped in the zombies, vampires and ghouls of American cinema.


In the nearby Plaza de la Donza over the week of Day of the Dead five very large sandpaintings were being created. We also saw sandpaintings in front of altars, in churches and public buildings, in shops and at cemeteries.

We wondered about the origin of this tradition. Was it public art expression with a death theme or was it connected in some way to death rituals?

A traditional practice in Teotitlan was that after someone died they were laid on a lime cross in front of the family altar so the soul of the person could enter the earth. Within nine days after burial a tapete (rug) of sand and coloured sawdust was created where the body had been. It was ritually swept up and placed in a cross on the earthen grave. This process symbolized the soul’s final departure and the removal of death from the home. They often had images of the Virgin, a saint or Christ. This was true with many sandpaintings we saw during Day of the Dead.

Ancient Rites

The present form of the celebration of Day of the Dead in Mexico has come about through a lengthy and circuitous historical development, which has resulted in the fusion of certain southern European folk practices, medieval and Renaissance catholic rituals, and indigenous Mesoamerican customs.”

Kristin Norget Days of Death, Days of Life: Ritual in the Popular Culture of Oaxaca.  Columbia University Press, New York. P. 193

There is often a link made to pre-Columbian indigenous traditions where death and sacrifice were central cultural preoccupations to explain the meaning and significance of Los Muertos, seeing it as a remnant of ancient Aztec funerary rites. Historians suggest that the Aztecs valued two ceremonies over other rituals – Miccailhuitontli “small feast of the dead” and Hueymiccaihuitl, “great feast of the dead”  which may point to why these two days in November have been adopted, dedicating one day to dead children and another to dead adults.

We cannot comment on this history but we did observe how proud the Indigenous peoples of Oaxaca are of their pre-Hispanic origins and traditions. They look back to their ancestors like the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs who were making offerings to the dead before the influence of Catholicism.

In traditional Aztec mythology, Mictlantecuhtli was the lord of the dead and the king of Mictlan, the underworld. He was traditionally depicted as a skeleton or a person with a toothy skull. His wife Mictecacihuatl was the Queen of Mictlan, a place perhaps similar to purgatory.

Respect for the Dead


Los Dias de Muertos (The Day of the Dead) is celebrated in different ways throughout Mexico where different indigenous groups have their own customs.

The festival happens anywhere around the 31st October, 1st and 2nd November. It is a time when homes and cemeteries are transformed.  The living expectantly await the annual visit of the souls with whom they will interact, establishing an intense dialogue with them. This dialogue between the living and the dead takes on many different forms.

For some people placing offerings on the household altar shows their belief that the dead return to visit. The returning dead are fed, welcomed into the home, and celebrated. The altar and special meal is a private expression of remembering the dead. Visiting the graves or the night vigil at the graveside is the more public expression of the celebration and is very widespread. The dead are spoken of and remembered.

We have only experienced Day of the Dead in Oaxaco, both in the city and in some surrounding towns, discovering for ourselves the great differences in traditions. While we have been reading what we can and speaking with Oaxacans, these are only our own impressions and interpretations.

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We saw altars in most shops and many of these were personalized, like the one at the Casa. However, there were also showcase altars in public buildings. Most altars were colourful, vibrant and imaginative. Perhaps altars are also seasonal decoration like Christmas is in our own culture. The altars show the mix of “folk catholic” and indigenous (some say “pagan”) beliefs and traditions.

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Although the visit to the graveyard aligns with the Catholic celebration of  ‘All Souls Day’ on November 2nd, the meaning of the visit may not be traditional or religious. Some say Europeans visit the cemetery on All Souls Day to remember departed loved ones whereas Mexicans see this as a time when their deceased return to the Earth to spend time with their relatives. The church no longer opposes Day of the Dead activities and instead direct it’s focus, for example saying prayers or masses at the cemetery.

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Day of the Dead demonstrates to the community that you show care and respect to the dead as well as for your living friends and family. It maintains a awareness of the thin line separating the living and the dead, after all we live with the uncertainty about our own death. However, for many Oaxacans the expense of making an altar, preparing special food to share and buying flowers and candles for the grave is getting more difficult every year.

Laughing at Death

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One of the ideas we were interested in is whether Los Dias de Muerte is evidence a unique Mexican attitude to death: the Mexican who laughs and dances with death, who is not afraid of death but instead venerates it.

The history of Mexico is rife with bloodshed and death for the poor and indigenous. The anthropologist Carlos Navarrete has suggested that this  idea about death developed in the 1930s and 1940s in a postrevolutionary time when the Mexican was searching for his roots. Intellectuals like the writer Octavia Paz (see his quote at the beginning of this blog) and artist Diego Rivera, dramatized and romanticized a typical but perhaps mythical Mexican “character”. We now know it’s important to question this romantic stereotype about an Mexican approach to death.

We are surrounded by many quirky examples of Mexican black humour. We wonder are the living being reminded of death or have the dead been given life?

The skull or dancing skeleton is at the heart of popular iconography that laughs at the rich and powerful or the fickle nature of fate and the fragility of life itself. So many Day of the Dead rituals invoke colour, sensory pleasure, vibrancy and chaotic energy, music and dancing- the exact opposite of what we usually associate with death: silence, darkness, fear, grimness, fear and a subdued gloomy, serious mood.

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Shopping for the Casa Altar

On our first morning we followed Jane’s group to a special Day of the Dead section of the local market to buy things for the Casa altar. In New York Halloween costume party outfits and decorations had been everywhere. They were also here amidst the stalls selling incense, chocolate, marigolds, festive breads, figurines and candles. This is something we will talk about later on.

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Back at the Casa we witnessed the building of the arch of marigolds and the decoration of the altar. Over the next days the altar acquired a tumbler of hot chocolate, tortillas, mescal, cigarettes. Members of the tour group had brought photographs and objects to add to the altar to personalize the altar for themselves. We wanted to do the same but had no photos but we lit candles. A path of merigold petals lead the way from the front door to the altar.

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Oaxaca- The Casa Colonial

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After a twelve hour trip from NYC we arrived at our residency at the Casa Colonial in Oaxaca to discover that the owner Jane Robinson was midway through leading a ‘Day of the Dead’ tour for a group of people from the US. Our residency project was to experience ‘Day of the Dead’ for ourselves and this blog is part of recording and thinking about this focus on death.

Jane and her husband Thorny had a long relationship with Mexico and developed the Casa as a B&B in a large colonial building set amongst peaceful gardens. They had a long association with many of the group members. Almost immediately we were invited to join in the activities of the group and to share Jane’s personal celebration for Thorny who had died five years ago. The staff of the Casa operate as a family and were also remembering Thorny and their long standing cook who had recently died as well as other people close to them. We will post more about this, our reactions to it and to other Day of the Dead experiences.