Día de los Muertos: A Day of the Dead and A Celebration of Life

"I felt I was no longer looking at myself in the mirror; it was La Catrina."


Día de los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead,” is a multi-day traditional Mexican holiday, beginning on the evening of October 31 and ending on the morning of November 2. The holiday involves many traditions to honor and remember loved ones who are deceased. Though each region of Mexico has different ways of celebrating the holiday, families across the entire country gather together to bring offerings to the family and friends who have gone before them. Families gather their loved ones’ favorite items and food and place them on an altar of remembrance. 

It may sound sad to think about beloved people who have passed away, but Mexican families will tell you that it’s truly a celebration of life. It’s a holiday that is celebrated with joy, warmth, love, and reverence, keeping those they love forever in their minds and hearts and honoring them.

A traditional symbol connected with Día de los Muertos is that of decorated skulls. La Catrina is an ornate, well-dressed skeleton woman whose classic look is traced back to the early 1900s. This figure of Mexican culture was created by José Guadalupe Posada and was actually a satire of the rich and posh people of Mexico. Catrina was popularized by the muralist Diego Rivera through his depictions. 

Oscar Monzon, one of our graphic designers here on the team at Bésame Cosmetics, moved to the United States with his wife Jazmin recently from Guanajuato, Mexico. Día de los Muertos has been an important part of their lives, and even though this will be only the second year they’ll celebrate it in Los Angeles, they’ve brought traditional Mexican festivities to remind them of home. Oscar and Jazmin shared with us about the traditional Catrina look that is created with makeup and using their insight we transformed Jazmin into a Catrina, complete with skull-like features, a flower headpiece, and a traditional Mexican dress that she has from Oaxaca. 

This holiday is not widely celebrated in the United States, so we wanted to learn from Oscar and Jazmin as much as we could about Día de los Muertos and the Catrinas to better share the beauty and importance of this Mexican tradition. Here’s a little bit more of what they had to say about the “Day of the Dead.”


What are some of your favorite traditions of Día de los Muertos, and how will you be incorporating those into your celebrations this year? 

Our definite favorite is building the “altar de muertos” for our loved ones and all that comes with it. This tradition is very close to our hearts because it was part of our upbringing since very young we learned to honor and celebrate our ancestors through this tradition. The fun would start by going to “el mercado” to buy everything needed, the whole experience is quite surreal, the bright colors from the “alfeñiques,” the strong fragrance from all the cempasuchil flowers, you can never get enough of the “pan de muerto” this whole experience would leave a sense of being part of something bigger.


How do different regions of Mexico celebrate Día de los Muertos?

It can be quite different. For example in Guanajuato, where we’re from, you can go to the local Cemetery “Panteón San Nicolas” for a guided night stroll where you would pay your respects and learn about the local legends and stories, some of them involving the people who are resting there. In Michoacán, on the other hand, you can go to the Island of Pátzcuaro where the town awaits for their loved ones at their graves surrounding them with altars and candles making way for the souls that will emerge from the water just for the night. Not to mention the altars change greatly in every region depending on the type of food, drinks, even fruits and vegetables that are more common in each state.


Why do you think it’s important to celebrate Día de los Muertos?

Because taking time to honor and remember passed loved ones is essential in our current society. Learning to celebrate life through the best memories we have of our loved ones, even if they have passed, should encourage us to keep living life, to enjoy this part of it and eventually be part of this honorable tradition too.


Sometimes people here in the United States refer to the makeup look of Catrina as a “sugar skull.” Are they the same thing?

I believe the two are different things with different origins. “Catrina” as you said comes from this concept that Guadalupe Posadas and Rivera brought by mocking the “Catrina” or “Catrin”. The Sugar Skull comes from prehistoric Mayan origins, by replacing the use of actual skulls in altars by Sugar Skulls or “alfeñiques”. Both of these concepts have developed throughout the years in the Mexican culture and I think it’s admirable when someone takes the time to get to know where the inspiration comes from, I think this is a great way to be part of this tradition.


We know that Catrina was created as a satirical figure, and has since become an icon of cultural importance. Do many people dress up like this in Mexico? How is this different than dressing up in a Halloween costume?

Honestly, in most of the country, the Halloween tradition has been adopted, and it’s very common to see kids and adults from all ages dressed up as catrinas as a costume for Halloween, Day of all Saints and also “Día de los Muertos”. But I would like to add, that dressing up as “Catrin” and “Catrinas” is still a part of the traditions, people can dress up to attend traditional celebrations, and currently, there are multiple festivals where competitions of “Catrinas” are commonly held. In our university in León, Guanajuato we would have yearly competitions for creating the best “Catrina.” Both of us are designers, so having the creative outlet of something so ingrained in us and so beautiful was the best, and definitely our favorite part of University was being part of “Catrinas de la Salle Bajío”.


Jazmin, what was it like to be transformed into La Catrina? What aspects of this look were most special to you?

The look was breathtaking, my makeup artist Daniela is so talented, she created this beautiful depth contrasting with red highlights that really brought the look to life but I was not prepared for the emotional transformation I was about to experience. I remember when going through the application of the makeup there was a distinct moment, I believe it was after placing the flowers on my braids, that I felt I was no longer looking at myself in the mirror; it was “La Catrina”. In a sense I felt like all these women were supporting me, a bit overwhelming to feel this powerful presence behind me, but being away from home often feels like I left a lot behind and this very moment reminded me that I am not alone, my ancestors are with me, my roots, heritage and even my “Abuelita” accompany me wherever I go.


What does Catrina symbolize for Mexican people, and what can we learn from her?

Ultimately “La Catrina” is a symbol of the impermanence of life and living life and all its stages as a celebration. We can use this symbol as a reminder to start caring less about appearances, about the unimportant daily hassles and more about cherishing life and our loved ones that are still in this realm with us.

3 comments

Great article! I’ve always been intrigued by Day of the Dead. It always seemed super fun and Mardi Gras like to me, but I love the concept and meaning behind it as well and it’s cool hearing about what it means to people who’s culture it is a part of and who have been celebrating it all their lives. Oh, and Jazmin’s makeup looks AMAZING!

Lindsay November 01, 2019

My little boy died at 23 months of age. He used to watch a Dios de los Muertos cartoon long before Coco, or The Book of Life were around. So we celebrate Dia de Los Muertos every year by setting up a sort of altar on the mantle alcove where his ashes are kept. I buy his favorite snacks, and we set up Catrinas of all sorts. I think he would love it, if he was still alive.

Laura October 31, 2019

Very beautiful. It is important to remember the wonderful times our loved ones. To keep their spirit alive.

Theresa Casillas October 28, 2019

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