It’s an interesting concept, to paint one’s face to celebrate life by drawing on death.
In modern societies, the painting of one’s face to imply liveliness is standard protocol for most females. Blush intimates a healthy glow…
See also: dilation of the capillaries. See also: vasocongestion.
Eye colors and curlers make eyes seem shiny and bright, while gloss reflects light making lips appear fuller, healthier.
Life in a bottle. Health in new shades!
In Mexico; however, as well as other parts of Latin America, the U.S., and Europe, the essence of life is glorified by illustrating its absence: blacks and whites to obscure the flesh…white bones and black sunken sockets to hint that the blues, greens, and browns no longer have seat there.
This painting occurs on Dia de los Muertos, (Day of the Dead,) which is a traditional Mexican holiday melding Catholic beliefs with the religions of the indigenous Mexican people, thus the mixture of Aztec and European motifs one finds surrounding the holiday.
Day of the Dead (or really days of the dead,) is a period of celebration held in honor of the deceased. October 31 is widely recognized as Halloween or All Hallows Eve. November 1st is El Dia de los Innocentes or the Day of the Children and All Saints Day. November 2nd is then the titular Day of the Dead. It is believed that the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on the 31st for all of the children to visit their families on the 1st and that the adults are allowed to return on the 2nd.
During this time, families and friends gather in their homes and at cemeteries to eat, drink, and be merry. It’s often a humorous occasion as funny anecdotes are shared about the deceased along with the passed ones’ favorite food and drink. Elaborate altars are built with memorabilia and photos on display. Flowers play a huge role in the festive atmosphere as well, particularly marigolds, the official Day of the Dead flower.
The focus is to pray for and remember those who have died and to encourage a visit from their spirits, and the real purpose of the face painting seems to have evolved from the making of the Calaveras or sugar skulls.
Sugar art was first introduced to the native population by Italian missionaries in the 17th century. Sugar was abundant in Mexico due to the implementation of sugar plantations by Spanish colonizers in the early 16th century. As Catholic beliefs began to mix with Mesoamerican traditions, Mexicans started to make the sugar skulls for their Dia de los Muertos celebrations. Sugar was abundant and skulls have been iconic symbols in rituals dating back to the pre-Hispanic era. The face painting appears to have later evolved from this, and is also said to be a way of celebrating the deceased by embracing death.
The most famous skull is the Calavera Catrina first painted by José Guadalupe Posada as a satirical depiction of the Europhile Mexican elite in the time of Porfirio Díaz’ dictatorship. It is also linked back to the original Aztec festival honoring Mictecacihuatl, the Lady of the Dead, which birthed Dia de los Muertos when combined with the Catholic’s All Saints Day and All Souls Day. In 2008, UNESCO named the holiday a part of the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Beautiful, colorful, and overwhelmingly joyful, Dia de los Muertos is an inviting holiday to adopt. It is important to note; however, the difference between appreciation and appropriation. There has been backlash from the Chicano community in recent years against the holiday’s rising popularity. The campaign against the face painting’s widespread and predominately ignorant use is that it is a culture, not a costume- a message with which I wholeheartedly agree and support.
I will admit that out of ignorance, I’ve attended Day of the Dead parties before, painted and corseted, toasting with tequila without knowing the holiday’s history and purpose. I can easily see why their community is so strongly opposed to the sluttification of a tradition so sacred and special…
I do not feel that cutting people off from experiencing it is the way to resolve its popularization; however, but just the opposite. In our information age, people have access to anything they want to know so it’s doubly important to make sure information, (like this,) is being promoted! (Just in researching the holiday I found 50 blogs talking about face paint designs, but only a handful delving into the history behind the tradition.)
Sharing this custom with those not born into the heritage is a way of promoting cultural appreciation through education, building bridges of human connection through understanding, and I am glad now to know the truth of it.
My first real understanding came from my experience last year at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. HFC is well known in Los Angeles for hosting concerts, events, and outdoor movies…and it is a “working” cemetery with memorialization options ranging from traditional ground burial to cremation niches, mausoleum interments, and scattering gardens.
Upon entering the cemetery I was faced with a swarm of Aztec ritual dancers, fierce faces and feathers. Further exploration uncovered multiple paths offering different delights. Down one, giant paper mache bone daddies gave me the feeling of having walked into a Tim Burton movie, (which I loved.) Down another, the fancifully constructed altars loomed above the marble slabs imbedded on either side, casting shadows against the mauseloeum walls, their neighbors for the night.
The cemetery was literally alive with dancing calacas skipping hand in hand around the gravestones. There was art everywhere, adorning the graves and in vendor stalls for sale, the smell of sizzling carne asada and wet grass, bright signs selling beer and tequila, face painting, and multiple stages of music. Last year’s theme was Quincenarea and festival goers took to it with astounding creativity both in alter art and attire.
Upon reflection, it is evident how such a commercialized, public event could be offensive. I saw a fair share of curious couples wandering in to get their face painted and make out behind the tombstones after enough tequila. It will be interesting to see if next year’s event takes on a more educational bent. I sincerely hope it does. This is a beautiful holiday that I advocate experiencing with appreciation, respect, and an effort to self-educate. What do you think about other communities engaging in this holiday? I’d love to know! Please leave comments below.