I see skulls everywhere: from lawns decorated for Halloween to pajama pants and dog sweaters. Somehow, an image that used to stand for death, motorcycle gangs and pirates evolved into a symbol of cuteness much like Hello Kitty.
Two major days for skulls or calaveras, the Mexican version, have arrived with Halloween and Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead. The cute-washing of skull imagery, however, strips away the symbolism and deeper meaning of recognizing, honoring and mourning the dead.
Halloween started out as a precursor to All Saints Day, a Catholic day of obligation on Nov. 1 that precedes All Souls Day on Nov. 2. Halloween morphed from a vigil for dead saints and souls into costume parties and candy binges for kids.
Dia de los Muertos looms close to meeting the same fate.
The holiday, stemming from both indigenous and Catholic traditions in Latin America, involves remembering loved ones who have died by building altars or decorating graves with personal items, marigolds, favorite food and beverages, and calaveras. The holiday, solemn in nature, provides an avenue for grief years or decades after a person has passed away.
Calaveras remind the living of the inseparable connection between life and death and that our lives are spent surrounded by death. Use of the skull goes back thousands of years, but some credit Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada for making calaveras a pop culture standard in Mexico in the early 20th century. Posada, an influence to legions of artists who followed, incorporated calaveras in artwork, advertisements and editorial cartoons making political or religious statements.
In Mexican culture, people embrace irony, and a skeleton engaging in living activities fits that scheme. Mexicans also tend to revere and make fun of death as a way to confront the discomfort, fear and pain that comes with mortality.
That’s why the calavera is not just a symbol for Dia de Los Muertos, but for Mexican and Latino culture in general. The Barra Fuerza Verde, the official Latino fan club for the Seattle Sounders professional soccer team, uses a calavera adorned with icons such as the Space Needle for its logo. A member of the group told me they chose the calavera image to distinguish the group as Latino and pay homage to indigenous roots.
Now that Dia de Los Muertos is going mainstream in the United States, people refer to the holiday as a “celebration” not in the same vein as a wake, but as in “fiesta,” as if all things Latino must invariably include parties and festive outfits.
Dia de los Muertos is about remembering the dead, both the sadness and joy of the life a person led. What scares me is that the tendency of Americans to commercialize and drain a holiday of its meaning, much like what happened to Halloween and Cinco de Mayo, is happening to Dia de los Muertos.
Our society, in general, struggles to fully process death and grief more than an initial burst of shock and sadness. I see that play out on social media every time a celebrity dies, or tragedy strikes such as last week’s school shooting in Marysville.
The Puget Sound community will continue to grapple with that loss of life for years to come, but as British columnist and former CNN host Piers Morgan pointed out in a column, the national media quickly moved on to other news the day after the shooting.
In the days to come, familiar images of ghosts, zombies and calaveras will fill my line of sight and that of many other people. We might eat candy and cookies shaped like those ghoulish figures.
Regardless of the revelry, I hope people take a minute to consider the source of the imagery – lives now gone urging us to remember they were people once, too.This blog post, originally published on Oct. 31, was corrected on Nov. 3. The original post contained the term “immortality” instead of “mortality.”