“Los objetos asociados con el culto de los muertos son considerados artesanía ritual… cuya naturaleza efímera testifica el derroche creativo al que obliga la transformación anual.” -Marta Turok

El Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a traditional Mexican celebration centered around the memory of those whose time has run out in the physical dimension, but remain, in essence, in the spiritual world. It is with the close observation of the formal components of this festivity, that one comes to realize: the fleeting quality of all its elements construct an allegory that ties the ephemeral aspect of the celebration with our own lives.

In this exhibit, a selection of decorations used in el Día de Muertos celebrations are independently analyzed to understand, how the same objects’ materials are an echo and reminder of life’s ephemeral quality and our fleeting time.

To set the scene, the Mexican celebration of difuntos (deceased) takes place every year during the 1st and 2nd of November. The first date is dedicated to deceased children and the following for adults. During the entirety of the celebration, it is believed that deceased family members come back to the altars set in homes; some families even lay out clean clothes for the deceased to wear upon their arrival.

Mexican families conceive their living spaces as an extension of holy grounds, worthy to welcome generations and generations of deceased visitants. This is something that directly translates to the physical architecture of the Mexican home. As is recorded for classical Mexican interior design, indoor fireplaces are constructed of multiple levels meant to be adorned. Often, these places have flowers, candles, Catholic imagery, and family pictures.

Already in everyday life, one embellishes home spaces with precepts of sacred altars, arranging fireplaces to be a rumination of what is to come next after this life. This way, Mexican families treat their everyday living spaces in silent but loyal practice to El Día de Muertos. The composition of fireplaces in an altar-like manner frame one of the oldest natural elements that has infatuated humanity: fire. Across cultures, fire has been perceived as a natural force that lives. Fire breathes, grows, eats, and travels, but it also ultimately dies. Furthermore, featuring live elements in everyday home “altars” makes for a subtle way of exalting the Mexican familiarity and comfortableness with death, for fire will eventually also cease. Fire as one of the four elements, is an important feature on altars, signified with candles. Much like fire, the other elements of wind, earth, and water also share space among levels of traditional altars. However, here we will delve into the personalized features of altars such as toys, ornaments, color meaning, and ultimately, explore the transient nature of said elements.


The Mexican individual has become so acquainted with the idea of death, that the subject is often dealt with comfortably. From cartoons, to idioms such as “colgó los tenis”, death is never presented as a stranger. Today, the degree of familiarity has extended even to the toys fabricated for Mexican children. The toys made by Mexican artisans are of natural materials such as wood, cotton, and paper. The most industrialized elements of the toys being nails and wire.

Taking for example a series of skull dolls from the late 1980s. The dolls are made of white twisted wire set on a wooden block with a skull face of white plaster. All the dolls are dressed up in bright colors radiating life, with traditional pieces like rebosos (belt-like cloth used by women at their waist) and a mañanita (falling drapery placed over head meant to keep someone warm). The lively quality exalted in these figures, contrasted by their apparent slim, skeletal figure, an image of death, comes across as a playful representation of the thin line separating worlds of existence.

Furthermore, and in direct relation to altars, toys are left almost exclusively in children’s ofrendas (altars). Their playful quality always tied to the infancy moments of play and laughter that are essential of childhood. It is specially the toys with greater mobility, the ones identified with the Día de muertos tradition.

When looking at toys such as the “Noisemaker”, one sees the skeletal outline printed in the wood carving as a hint of the afterlife occupation of our subject. Nevertheless, its cart-like function rolls in the ground keeping the piece tied to the physical plane. As it rolls and advances through the earth, the skeleton musician on top of the cart plays a can drum vigorously. It reifies that just like music, life ends just as it is created, connecting to the greater notion of the evanescent quality toys have in our own lives.

It becomes necessary for us to evaluate the timeframe toys occupy in our lives. The infancy period is a relatively short span of time in the life of a person, extending to be 5-7 years. Due to their relatively short usage period, toys’ place in our lives is limited to the time one is a child. Thus, the brief time of joy and actual occupation of toys translates to a rumination on life’s ephemerality when placed in altars. The joy of childhood juxtaposed with the presence of death in just one element.

Papel Picado

A more universal quality of all altars is papel picado. Papel picado, or calado as it was archaically known, is a craft introduced to Mexico during colonization. This tradition was brought from Europe and is thought to trace its roots back to French confectionery decorative designs. In Mexico however, its home is thought to be with the Vivanco artisan family, in the town of San Salvador Huixcolotla, Puebla. The preparation of papel picado begins in early September by hand, traditionally made with tissue paper, scissors, fine gauges and cutters. It is conceived as an short-lived offering to the deceased which serves to adorn the frame and other elements of altars. The traditional motifs of papel picado are of organic shapes such as flowers or leaves, with central images of birds, the sun, or a skeleton engaged in an activity.

The material is inherently fragile and short-lived, fitting for a celebration that is meant to maintain its splendor for a short amount of time. The universal quality that all papel picado shares regardless of the image it records, is its fragile nature of counted days. Both elements previously discussed, toys and papel picado, regarding their function in día de muertos offerings, is of strong intention, yet frail character. Both echo the celebration’s briefness, the escaping quality of memory and ultimately, the ephemeral quality of life.

As formal elements of el día de muertos, Mexican toys and papel picado deserve special mention due to their communicative quality to reveal more secrets of this celebration what meets the eye. Both are agents of joy and celebration, bright colored and interactive, yet, also of death in their short existence. They serve as a reminder of life’s joyful but fleeting quality, as well for this celebration’s short window in time, for our deceased only come back for a few days. The colorful elements of toys and papel picado ultimately summarize one important thing, the joy of life and memory is an evanescent moment worth remembering for all eternity.

curated by Fatima Leal


Turok, Marta. “LA OFRENDA UN DERROCHE CREATIVO.” Artes De México, no. 62, 2011, pp. 48–55. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24314381. Accessed 29 Sept. 2020.

Lechuga, Ruth D. “RITUALES DEL DÍA DE MUERTOS.” Artes De México, no. 62, 2011, pp. 16–25. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24314376. Accessed 24 Oct. 2020.

García, César. “EL PAPEL PICADO MEXICANO.” Confluencia, vol. 6, no. 2, 1991, pp. 177–179. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27922028. Accessed 29 Sept. 2020.