La Calavera Catrina: death is the great equalizer.
A well-known emblem of this festival is La Calavera Catrina (or “La Calavera Garbancera”), a character created by Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada for satirical purposes: as explained by the Illustration Chronicles, "The image – often known as 'The Skull of the Female Dandy' – is a zinc etching that shows a grinning skeleton with a fancy feathered hat. This type of hat would have been common among the upper-classes. During the time in which it was made it would have been common for some members of Mexican high-society to whiten their skin with make-up and adopt aristocratic ways. Becoming more European was a common aspiration for the over-privileged. As the revolution began, Posada created a sort of satirical obituary for this portion of society. For Posada, death was the great equaliser. He is known to have said that 'death is democratic'. No matter your colour or creed, your wealth or your poverty, everyone ends up as a skull in the end."
Items commonly found on altars include pictures of the deceased, candles (whose glow will guide the dead to the home), copal incense to purify the environment, religious symbols such as crucifixes and images of saints, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus, water, food items, spirits, toys, musical instruments, personal belongings, toiletries, decorative skulls made by either sugar or clay (calaveras), mexican marigolds (cempasúchil, whose fragrance and bright color are believed to lead the deceased to the altar), perforated paper (papel picado). It's worth noting that ofrendas do typically include the four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. Earth is represented by food, especially fruit, seeds, and bread (pan de muerto); air is represented by a moving object (papel picado); water is usually left in a container in order for the deceased to calm their thirst after their long journey; fire is represented by candles.
Concerning food, it must be noted that in Latin America the concepts of food, family, and time are inextricably linked (note: Latin American cultures share a polychronic time orientation).
- to the question "What is your ideal vision of a Mexican family eating dinner?", most participants "agreed on similar visions, where the whole family eats together";
- respondents described food "as something a family shares, and unless you are driven to eating for depression or anger, food can often build a sense of togetherness and nostalgia and contentment otherwise lacking in some instances";
- someone sharing their personal experience claimed that "For the family, eating was always done together, never separate, as the meals were always something that brought us together. This establishes that to Mexicans, food helps identify the importance of family and togetherness."
On a related note, a dfferent study on The Use of Family Rituals in Eating Behaviors in Hispanic Mothers reports that the majority of participants "explained that preparing food was very social, although it could involve each person performing a different task, and that learning occurred in social interactions involving observation and guided practice", and that many of them "mentioned that they tried to continue the tradition of preparing and serving traditional food":
- "When I cook, I remember and I say, 'Oh that meal was so good when made by…' or the salsa, I like to make salsa at night, and I always remember that my mom would have us cook. My sister would make the salsa and I would make flour tortillas, and my mom would cook the night meals. The dinner. I always remember that, that she would have my sister and I already designated, 'oh I am making the flour tortillas', 'oh I am making the salsa'. We knew what we had to do!";
- "Well, my aunts … taught me how to make enchiladas.".
Food preparation for Day of the Dead is therefore a way to maintain a strong bond with the dead relatives, to show them love, and to honor their memory.
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