The Library of Congress > Wise Guide > October 2010 > Death Takes a Holiday
Death Takes a Holiday

With an unmistakable face and many names–La Catrina, la Flaca, la Huesuda, la Pelona–she’s well-known in Mexican society. She's not some trendy fashion model; she’s La Muerte – Death.

Grand electric calavera. Summary: Print shows large skeleton hypnotizing a group of skulls and a sitting skeleton; an electric street car, with skeletons as passengers, is in the background.Between 1900 and 1974. Prints and Photographs Collection. Reproduction Information: Reproduction No.: LC-DIG-ppmsc-04468 (digital file from original); Call No.: PGA - Vanegas, no. 43 (A size) [P&P] [P&P Juan B. Rael interviewing Manuela "Mela" Martínez, Taos, N.M. 1930. American Folklife Center. Reproduction Information: Not available for reproduction.

At first glance, the Mexican custom of El Día de los Muertos—the Day of the Dead—may sound much like the American custom of Halloween. After all, the celebration traditionally starts at midnight the night of Oct. 31, and the festivities are abundant in images related to death. But whereas Halloween is all about the spooky and scary, the Day of the Dead pays homage to deceased loved ones. In most localities Nov. 1 is set aside for remembrance of deceased infants and children, often referred to as angelitos (little angels). Adults who have died are honored Nov. 2.

During the time of the Aztecs, a month-long summer celebration was overseen by the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the Lady of the Dead. After the Aztecs were conquered by Spain and Catholicism became the dominant religion, the customs became intertwined with the Christian commemoration of All Saints' Day on Nov. 1.

Specifics of the celebration vary with region, but one of the most common customs is the making of elaborate altars to welcome departed spirits home. Vigils are held, and families often go to cemeteries to fix up the graves of their departed relatives. Festivities also frequently include traditional foods such as pan de muerto (bread of the dead). Traditional decorations include all manner of skeletons and other macabre toys; intricate tissue-paper cut-outs called papel picado; elaborate wreaths and crosses decorated with paper or silk flowers; candles and votive lights; and fresh seasonal flowers, particularly cempazuchiles (marigolds) and barro de obispo (cockscomb).

The Library's Local Legacies website is a good place to learn about Hispanic culture in America. Projects documenting Hispanic culture include the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) Fruitvale Festival, an annual one-day street festival held in the Fruitvale district of Oakland, Calif., and sponsored by the Spanish Speaking Unity Council.

The Library is also rich in resources related to Hispanic culture and history. The Hispanic Division collections comprise more than 13 million items. An American Folklife Center resource, “Hispano Music and Culture of the Northern Rio Grande: The Juan B. Rael Collection,” is an online presentation of a multi-format ethnographic field collection documenting religious and secular music of Spanish-speaking residents of rural Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado. Rael, a linguist and folklorist, documented alabados (hymns), folk drama, wedding songs and dance tunes.

Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) was a cartoonist, illustrator and artist whose work has influenced many Latin American artists and cartoonists because of its satirical acuteness and political engagement. His best-known works are his calaveras, or skulls, which often assume various costumes. Since his death, his images have become associated with Día de los Muertos. The Library’s collections include several of his prints, mostly as part of the Caroline and Erwin Swann collection of caricature and cartoon. Search the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog for his name to bring up examples of his work.