Original illustration by Stephanie Smelyansky
There’s two types of skulls in my book: calaveras, and the rest of them.
I personally find typical skeletons depressing, grotesque, and taboo. Where’s the fun, the hope? I find so much more inspiration in calaveras. Maybe I’m just obsessed with calaveras because they’re so colorful or maybe because I’ve watched The Corpse Bride so many times that I find subterranean maggot parties fun. Calaveras take the macabre and literally sweeten it with sugar and adorn it in color. They allow for death to be celebrated as a greater part of the circle of life.
Well, I may adore calaveras, but the younguns in Mexico do not. In Mexico, calaveras are a usual part of Day of the Dead celebrations, which commence on November 1 and run through November 2. The Day of the Dead is an annual holiday that honors the dead with custom-made altars filled with marigolds, favorite foods and beverages, and calaveras. The holiday is festive and happy. Yet Mexican teens are rejecting it with the full angst of Harry Potter a la Order of the Phoenix.
According to the Mexican newspaper El Occidental (apologies for the Spanish language article), Mexican youth are falling out of touch with Mexican traditions, specifically the Day of the Dead. The United States heavily influences what youth consider "cool" in Mexico and as a result many Mexican teens are drawn to American traditions such as Halloween. Nowadays, many kids walk through the streets on the Day of the Dead asking, "where's my calavera?" a play on the American "trick-or-treat." Some Mexican kids dress up in costumes like American kids do for Halloween. Yet I, as an American kid, want to dress up as a calavera*.
It may be difficult to understand why Mexican kids would reject a tradition as rich as Day of the Dead. To a Mexican teen, however, there's probably nothing particularly unique about Day of the Dead because it's such a normal part of their culture, same way Halloween doesn't feel special in America. And just North of the border lies a giant behemoth that floods social media with what “cool” should be. The macabre has no funny place in the hearts of Americans, and as Mexican teens absorb media from their Northern neighbor, they too lose their respect for death. The desire to fit into a global community feels synonymous with leaving one's own cultural identity and assuming another one, one built by the US. All because different feels special.
And maybe I and other American teens like Day of the Dead celebrations and calavera skull makeup because it's different from typical Halloween ghosts and witches, which in turn makes us feel special. I want to say that American teens dress up as calaveras completely out of respect for Mexican culture, but in reality many do so to just to feel unique. I and other US teens are no different from the Mexican kid across the Rio Grande in that regard. On both sides of the border, kids are trying to establish their identity and it’s hard to feel like an individual when everyone is doing the same thing. The spookiness and horror of Halloween resonates with some Mexican kids as much as the light hearted festivities of Day of the Dead resonate with myself and other Americans.
On both sides of the border, we’re just kids who are still trying to make heads and tails of who we are and where we’re from. We’re experimenting and exploring the world from different viewpoints, even if that is from behind a calavera mask or a witch’s hat.
I painted my face to look like a calavera using Target facepaint. I used Michelle Phan's tutorial as inspiration for the look. If anyone wants to replicate the calavera look, please do so respectfully of the cultural heritage of the holiday.
*Before anyone accuses me of cultural appropriation for wearing calavera makeup, please note that I have a deep respect for the holiday and I truly admire the message behind calaveras and Day of the Dead and makeup is just a medium through which I chose to express my admiration.