La Pelona and Other Names for Death: An Introduction to Día de muertos

By Roselia Bañuelos

TRADITION :

  1. the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way.                  
  2. a doctrine believed to have divine authority though not in the scriptures
Posada, Jose Guadalupe. “La Calavera de la Catrina.” 1912 (zinc etching) ; 12×16 cm; Private Collection

From October 31st to November 2nd, many Mexicans will partake in the celebration of Dia de Muertos ( in Mexico, it is known as “Día de Muertos” and in the US, as “Día de Los Muertos.”). The celebrants can be distinguished by their assorted representations of La Catrina (skeleton face costumes seen around this time ).  As we unpack this enthralling tradition, we discover the everchanging quality of the representation and honoring of death. Foremost, death has many names. The first to conceptualize her for Mexicans was artist Jose Guadalupe Posada in 1912, under the name La Calavera Garbancera (The Yucatan Times). Famed artist Diego Rivera later named and completed what we’ve come to recognize as La Catrina.

Rivera, Diego. “Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central.” 1947. Museo Mural Diego Rivera, Mexico City, Mexico.

Other names include: La Santa Muerte, Mi Niña Blanca, La Madrina, La Doña, La Jefa, La Santa Niña, La Señora, La Flaca, La Flaquita, La Huesuda, La Calaca, La Dama Poderosa, La Comadre, Santisima Muerte, La Santita, Mi Rosa Maravillosa, La Hermana Blanca, Mi Niña Guapa, La Santita, El Angel de la Muerte and La Pelona (Oleszkiewicz-Peralba 3) .

Tradition is beautifully transcendent, in my own definition of self, I too found the need to pay homage to La Pelona. I was born in Mexico and raised Catholic, but oddly enough my family didn’t celebrate Dia de Muertos until 2019. “Día de los Muertos has its roots in Pre-Columbian cultures and beliefs. Before the Spanish arrived in what is today Mexico, the Aztec gave offerings to their deceased ancestors as part of their death rituals. After the Spanish came, the celebration morphed to incorporate Catholic beliefs and practices, creating this deeply religious, syncretic tradition” (NPR).

On October 31, 2019 my father crossed over. I had a strange yet curious premonition all year about it being the first year I would be setting up an ofrenda.


Ofrenda. Film still from Disney’s Coco (2017).
Ofrenda. 2020. Arte Público Press, Houston, Texas.

Now, how does one set up an ofrenda? Even within Mexico, different towns celebrate differently.  “Most El Dia De Los Muertos altars require certain elements that are solely used and sold during the holiday and are significant items for El Dia De Los Muertos altars. These items include: papel picado (paper hangings), calacas (skeletons), calaveras (skulls), cempazuchitl (marigold), copalli/copal (incense), pan de muertos (bread of the dead), candles, statues and pictures of religious saints, and the favorite items of the honored soul(s).” (Garcia 30).

Setting up an ofrenda can be done to the liking of the family and community. I feel that bringing an ofrenda to life includes the following: honoring the elements { Earth (flowers- cempazuchitl ), Air (papel picado and incense), Fire (candles), Water (in a glass or small fountain)}, depiction of the four directions (circle of life or candles in a cross), photos of the deceased with accompanying sugar skull and candle, any religious imagery, and the favorite food, items, and drink of the deceased. Remember, this is a celebration, it’s ok to take a shot of that tequila your loved one use to enjoy, to sing his or her favorite songs, and remember what contributions they’ve left for those still alive.

In Mayan mythology Day of the Dead is known as “Hanal Pixan,” which translates as “food of the souls.” The contemporary celebration of the dead is a hybrid of Mayan and Catholic religions:

“As the Maya tradition started mixing up with the Catholic religion, the 13 heavens and 9 underworlds simply became heaven and hell. And the stepped altars became more popular. However, certain elements that are unique to their culture have remained. During the Hanal Pixán offerings, a green cross is placed to represent the sacred ceiba tree; Gourds of Atole, representing the 4 cardinal points, and 22 offerings of food to the gods of both the 13 heavens and 9 underworlds.” ( Altournative)

Now is the perfect time to gather what may be needed to have your own ofrenda. The tradition isn’t meant to make fun of La Catrina but to recognize her in her duty to this space we call reality. From personal experience, this tradition has served to come to terms with the fact that this body we inhabit will one day cease to function. In this realization, I remember to honor those who came before me, those who have been lost and forgotten, and all those we have lost in the pandemic we are currently facing. Most of all, this tradition allowed me to become intimately aware of the grief I held onto knowing that one day cancer would defeat my father. Now, every year I make space for my grief and my father’s memories as I dress up as La Catrina and indulge in the release of celebrating the fact that we will all cease to exist in this world as we know it.

We celebrate the following on these dates:

  • October 31st  – Children
  • November 1st – Adults
  • November 2nd – All Souls Day of the Dead was declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO (El Universal)

Day of the Dead was declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO (El Universal).

Catrinas in a Día de Muertos celebration. National Geographic, 2013.

Works cited

Alltournative. “Hanal Pixán: When the Underworld Joins Us to Celebrate.” Alltournative, alltournative.com/blogs/news/hanal-pixan-underworld. Accessed 23 Oct. 2020.

Dobrin, Isabel. Día De Los Muertos Comes To Life Across The Mexican Diaspora. 2 Nov. 2017, npr.org/2017/11/02/561527322/mexicos-celebrated-d-a-de-los-muertos-evolves-in-the-u-s. Accessed 23 Oct. 2020.

Garcia, Belinda. “The Role of El Dia De Los Muertos in the Cultural Identity of The Latino Community.” University of Houston – Clear Lake , ProQuest Information and Learning Company, 2005, pp. 30–30. Accessed 23 Oct. 2020.

“The Mexican Catrina – an Evolving Tradition.” El Universal, 1 Nov. 2019, eluniversal.com.mx/english/mexican-catrina-evolving-tradition. Accessed 23 Oct. 2020.

National Geographic Society. “Catrinas.” National Geographic Society, 9 Apr. 2013, nationalgeographic.org/photo/ddm-catrinas/. Accessed 23 Oct. 2020.

Oleszkiewicz-Peralba, Malgorzata. “Representations of Death in Mexico: La Santa Muerte.” Repository Home, 1 Jan. 1970, uh-ir.tdl.org/handle/10657/3007. Accessed 23 Oct. 2020.

Says, Aj. “‘La Catrina:” Mexican Representation of Death.” The Yucatan Times, 8 Dec. 2017, theyucatantimes.com/2017/10/la-catrina-mexican-representation-of-death/. Accessed 23 Oct. 2020.

Arte Público Resources

Digital Altar

Día de los muertos: Altar digital. Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage. https://arcg.is/CyyPz. 

Children’s Books

De Alvarado, Aracely. “La Divina Catrina/The Divine Catrina.” Arte Público Press, 2020.

Garza, Xavier. “Just One Itsy Bitsy Little Bite/Sólo una mordidita chiquitita.” Arte Público Press, 2018.

Mora, Pat. “The Remembering Day/El Día de los muertos.” Arte Público Press, 2015.

Blog Posts

Baeza Ventura, Gabriela. “Calavera para el Profesor Kanellos y Recovery.” 18 de noviembre 2020.

Navarro, Elías David. “Calaveras literarias: breve semblanza y guía.” 3 de noviembre 2020.


Roselia Bañuelos is a MSW/PhD student at the Graduate School of Social Work. She is also a Research Assistant at Recovery. Bañuelos’ research interests include rites of passage, human trafficking and children and women’s rights.

4 thoughts on “La Pelona and Other Names for Death: An Introduction to Día de muertos

  1. ¡Excelente trabajo, Roselia! Agradezco la recopilación de datos de cultura y antropología y también el que hayas compartido tu experiencia personal.

    Like

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