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Elegant skeletons hit the streets ahead of Mexico’s Day of the Dead

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day of the dead

Amy Guthrie, Associated Press

Published October 26, 2019 at 5:39 pm

Last updated Saturday, October 26, 2019 9:47 PM

MEXICO CITY – Mexicans paraded in the streets of the capital dressed in elegant skeletons on Saturday, while the festivities of the Day of the Dead extend in scope and popularity.

Thousands of revelers gathered at the feet of Mexico City's Angel of Independence statue, wearing clothes and face paint to mimic the elegant Mexican skeletal figure known as "La Catrina." Some remained true to character, wearing long turtleneck dresses, while others channeled figures of Mexican folklore, such as mariachi angles in black metal studded suits, Quinceanera princesses in bulky dresses or scornful brides left on the altar.

Skeletal images abound in Mexico since pre-Hispanic times. But in 1910, when Mexico lived under dictator Porfirio Diaz's exclusionary policies, illustrator JoseGuadalupe Posada sketched the image of La Catrina as a tool for social satire.

She wears a large, haute couture hat at a time when elite Mexican women copy Paris fashion trends and paint their faces to look more European. The implication was that the extravagance of some who were accumulating vast wealth was killing others. The dictator was deposed at the beginning of the Mexican revolution, while the skeletal lady was engraved in popular culture.

"It is an iconic part of the images of death from the Day of the Dead," said R. Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University who researches the culture of Catholic death.

La Catrina's role in the holiday was enhanced by Hollywood's adaptations of the Day of the Dead festivities in films such as Disney's Coco (2017), which featured Victorian architecture in a nod to the cast-iron opulence of the Porphyrian era. In another animated film, The Book of Life (2014), a character named "La Muerte", or Lady Death, wears a giant hat and rules an underworld known as "the Land of the Remembered."

Mexicans are especially proud that their beloved "Dia de Muertos" traditions have gained international recognition, even though the celebration has become more commercial.

"It's the day we most remember the family members who came before us – although I think we remember them 365 days a year," said Susana Jimenez, a grandmother who appeared with braids of thread on her head, a face painted like a a skeleton and a hand-embroidered shoulder sarape to support a granddaughter doing a regional dance in the parade.

"This identifies us as a country, and not everyone can say the same, that they have traditions."

Mexico's two-day holiday to honor the dead traditionally begins on November 1 – All Saints' Day on the Catholic calendar. In some indigenous communities, family members camp overnight in the graves of their loved ones to pay tribute.

For others, vigils are a solemn subject at home, a moment of reflection. Women like Jimenez raise altars for their departed loved ones, placing pictures and lighting candles to remind them.

In the case of 29-year-old Mario Diaz, who celebrates the holiday for a solid month, this means preparing tequila, sugar-sprinkled bread called "Pan de Muerto" and green salsa-soaked enchiladas for his late godfather. Every day he replaces the enchiladas, which were his godfather's favorite dish, with a fresh dish.

Diaz, dressed as a rockabilly skeleton, said he was not concerned that the holiday was taking on a more commercial and international spirit.

"Fine, as long as the essence is not lost," he decides, looking at the carnival atmosphere around him, which includes drummers playing music and children painting their faces.

This essence has a religious element: before the Spanish conquest, the Aztecs devoted most of August to their goddess of death, Mictecacihuatl. As part of the Spanish repression of indigenous beliefs, the celebration was moved to coincide with Catholic holidays such as All Souls' Day.

Celebrated Madai Selbor was inspired by the fusion of Spanish and indigenous cultures for her fantasy on Saturday, dressing as a skeletal La Malinche, the nahua woman who played the conqueror Hernan Cortes, with whom she also had a child.

Selbor said that if La Malinche could see the festivities of death now, "for her, it would be like the children of La Malinche celebrating the union of two worlds."

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