Mexico’s Day of the Dead is a complex holiday full of colour, morbid humour, deep sentimentality, celebration, and heartache. On the eves of November 1 and 2, the dead are welcomed with open arms into the land of the living. Not only are the dearly departed invited back, but they are the guests of honor.

In preparation, and to entice them to the party, treat-laden altars are beautifully created with the favourite foods and vices of the spirits. Mariachi bands play both melancholic and upbeat tunes; lively and soulful music to raise the dead. Public squares fill with huge mosaics, parades, and art installations all dedicated to the visitors from the Netherworld. Markets overflow with large bundles of orange marigolds (flower of the dead) and trays of pan de muertos (bread of the dead). Rows of brightly decorated sugar skulls grin grotesquely sweet smiles, waiting to be purchased.

Dia de los Muertos 3 via

In the cemeteries, starting on the evening of October 31st, families gather together to reminisce. They hold vigil, laugh, cry, and even dance, near the graves of the defunct. The festivities are for all of those who have passed on: Deceased loved ones, ancestors, and beloved public heroes and figures.

And on this wonderfully macabre event, some high-spirited ‘damas’ are among the most honored. Whether fictional or factual, these ladies are nothing short of legendary. Their likenesses are often incorporated into public Day of the Dead celebrations. Altars, murals, sawdust mosaics, and costumed impersonators pay homage to some of the leading ladies of this very important holiday. Here is who they are:

The Leading Ladies of Dia de los Muertos


Probably the most recognized and reproduced image of Day of the Dead is ‘La Calavera Catrina’, (The Elegant Skull.) Originally an etching by artist Jose Guadalupe Posada, her image and name was made popular when she appeared on a mural by prominent Mexican artist, Diego Rivera in 1948. Her glamorous attire, combined with her non-living state comes across as humorous, but makes a bold social statement. She is now a ‘Dia de los Muertos’ icon that serves to emphasize the neutralizing force of death, reminding people that in the end, regardless of wealth or social standing, we are all equal.

The Leading Ladies of Dia de los Muertos


Day of the Dead traditions show an influence of both Catholic and Aztec influences. It is a complex mixture of All Saint’s Day and the month-long ancient Aztec celebration in honor of Mictecacihuatl, the goddess of the Netherworld. The Aztecs believed that the dead preferred to be celebrated rather than mourned, and Mictecacihuatl was the queen that presided over the festivities. A muralist leaves his version of the Aztec goddess on a wall in the Xochimilco neighbourhood of Oaxaca.

The Museo de Antropologia in Mexico City is a good place to learn more about the different Aztec deities and holds a pair of statues of Michtecacihuatl and her husband Mictlantecuhtli.

The Leading Ladies of Dia de los Muertos


La Virgen de Guadalupe is considered the patroness of Mexico and it is no surprise that images of her are seen on this emotionally deep occasion. Guadalupe is a version of the Virgin Mary and many turn to her in times of need and spiritual guidance. Her presence in the cemeteries is often permanent. Headstones with her image gracefully watch over the souls of loved ones. Read more about her here.

The Leading Ladies of Dia de los Muertos


La Llorona (‘The Weeping Woman’) is one of Mexico’s most famous ghosts. Legend has it that after drowning her own children, she became fraught with guilt and ended her own life. She now spends the rest of eternity in mourning; searching in vain to recover her lost niños. Dressed all in white with long, dark hair, she is most recognized by her mournful wailing; striking terror in the hearts of those who hear it.

There is a popular folk song written about La Llorona; sung by many, but made most popular by another legendary lady: Chavela Vargas. This song was also featured in the movie Frida, performed by Chavela Vargas and Lila Downs.

The Leading Ladies of Dia de los Muertos


Maria Sabina was a traditional healer or ‘curandera’ who spent her life in the Sierra Mazateca in the state of Oaxaca. Her use of psilocybe mushrooms in her healing practices attracted the attention of high-profile celebrities like John Lennon and Bob Dylan. In her later years she regretted passing the secret of the mushrooms to people who did not give it the sacred respect it deserved. She passed away at the age of 91 and is frequently honored with public altars, especially in her home state.

Maria Sabina also wrote poetry; an outlet for her wisdom.

The Leading Ladies of Dia de los Muertos


Frida Kahlo, one of Mexico’s most well-known painters is honored with a ‘tapete’: A mosaic made from coloured sawdust and marigold petals. Kahlo died at the age of 47. Her work was not widely acclaimed until decades after her death. Many of her paintings are self-portraits, a result of intense feelings of self-exploration and discovery after an accident left her with injuries that would plague her throughout her life. Many of her paintings were created while she was bedridden. One of her famous quotes: “Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?” speaks of her physical constraints, and how she overcame them through her creativity. Her work is celebrated for representing both the female, and the indigenous experience of the first half of the 20th century. Her husband was prominent muralist, Diego Rivera, with whom she had a volatile, yet passionate relationship.

La Casa Azul (The Blue House), located in the Coyoacán neighbourhood of Mexico City was once Frida’s home, and has since been converted into a museum of her life and work.

The Leading Ladies of Dia de los Muertos


A Day of the Dead altar honors the memory of Maria Felix. Considered to be one of the most iconic leading ladies of the ‘Epoca de Oro’ (The Golden Age) of Mexican cinema, she leaves behind a legacy of gutsy women characters. It was not only the roles she played on film that were larger than life. Maria Bonita or ‘La Doña’, as she was also known, was an outspoken woman who was not afraid to make her mark. She died at 88 years old but age did not seem to concern her much. When asked how old she was by a journalist she replied (in Spanish), “Look, young lady, I have been very busy living my life and I’ve not had time to count it.”

The Leading Ladies of Dia de los Muertos


Men in the Yucatan area are warned of this beautiful demon that has come back from the dead to seduce and ultimately kill her lovers.  Enraged that her chastity was not rewarded in the After Life, she returns to seek her lusty revenge on the living. Disguised as her kind-hearted but promiscuous sister, she bewitches her male victims and leaves their bodies behind the spiny Ceiba tree. Read more on the legend of the Ix’tabay here.

The Leading Ladies of Dia de los Muertos left via / right via

While Day of the Dead places heavy emphasis on the deceased, it is ultimately about celebrating life. Through their grace; their ‘grab life by the horns’ examples, or their deep regret on mistakes they made, lessons can be learned from these drop-dead gorgeous divas: Be true to yourself, focus on the things that really matter, and live big!

Part of the fun of Day of the Dead is jumping in and mingling with the visitors from the Netherworld. Watch this video to learn how to embrace your inner Catrina, or find inspiration for perfect sugar skulls here.

This is a guest post by Tara Lowry – check our her website.
All photos by Tara, unless stated differently.

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