Día De Los Muertos is a tradition that I've always taken part in. My family is from Mexico, and I grew up in the valley of Los Angeles, an area populated heavily by Mexican families and first-generation kids my age. This area was (and remains to be) influenced by the culture (Spanish is the primary language around town). Even my big 4th-grade project was to create an ofrenda, also known as an altar. This ofrenda is the centerpiece of any Día De Los Muertos celebration. Here in America, it's common to find these altars in Mexican homes, but in Mexico, photos of loved ones, flowers, food, and families dressed in bright colors are found gracing cemeteries in every region.
The altar isn't for worshipping, but to instead serve as a backdrop of a welcome-home celebration for spirits of past loved ones coming back to the realm of the living during this holiday. The offerings set on the ofrenda range from water (to rehydrate after the long journey); a loved one's favorite foods or their beloved objects left behind in the living world, and bright marigold petals scattered up to the altar to act as a trail for wandering souls. Papel Picado, a colorful garland made of tissue-paper flags with scalloped edges and intricate photos cut into them, is usually also draped around altars to represent how fragile life is. Finally, sugar skulls are placed as decorations recognizing the person who has passed, with his or her name written on the forehead.
Contrary to the common misconception, Día De Los Muertos is not the Mexican version of Halloween. Although the dates are close (the Day of The Dead traditional celebration runs from November 1 through 2, although it's common for some to extend through the entire month) the two annual events differ in both tradition and tone. Halloween is a night of terror and mischief—usually illustrated in black, the color of death. On the other hand, Día De Los Muertos is colorful, with an undertone of life-affirming joy.
Growing up, the whole thing felt eerie, but as I've gotten older, I've come to appreciate the tradition (see above). It no longer carries a spooky element of death, but the love and happiness our loved ones brought us when they were alive. We remember them in a way that pays their life respect, but also acknowledges that although their physical bodies are no longer with us, their spirits will always remain by our sides.
With age, my fascination with both my culture and makeup blossomed. Take, for example, the famous Día De Los Muertos ensembles. The tradition of painting skulls on one's face is a reminder that the only certainty in life is death itself and to celebrate life while we still can. In 1910, Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada created the famous etching "La Calavera Catrina," which served as a political satire. It shows the Catrina wearing tailored European clothing, desired by upper-class indigenous Mexicans at the time, to prove that regardless of material treasures, we're all equal in death. It's now a quintessential Mexican icon. When you paint your face in a colorful skull, with colorful motifs, you're actually painting your face like a Catrina (not to be confused with sugar skulls, the sweet treat placed on the ofrenda). This actually brings me to my next point.
We remember them in a way that pays their life respect, but also acknowledges that although their physical bodies are no longer with us, their spirits will always remain by our sides.
Some might find the Catrina look to be a major source of cultural appropriation. Here's why: For people of Mexican descent, it's not a Halloween costume, but a tradition that honors their loved ones and life itself. Again, Día De Los Muertos and Halloween are two very different holidays and should be treated as such. I personally don't take offense to people of different cultures taking part in our tradition—it's beautiful, and it should be shared. However, it's the person's level of engagement that will determine if it's appreciation or appropriation. If you're afraid of being accused of the latter, refrain from painting your face like a Catrina, only to take a selfie and hit up your local pub on October 31. However, if you really want to connect with the culture and honor the traditions, there are plenty of Latinx-owned Día De Los Muertos festivals and Mexican-owned businesses you can celebrate with on November 1 and 2. And I promise you, anyone you meet there will be more than happy to share stories of loved ones, invite you into their culture, and even paint your face for you.
Now, there's one thing to note: There's also a major difference between the Catrina look from Día De Los Muertos and your ordinary skull costume makeup. A skeleton costume is modeled after an anatomically correct skull—including eye sockets, teeth, and cheekbones—painted in white and black. For the record, you can 100 percent dress up as a skeleton on Halloween without question. The Catrina makeup includes the same features, but painted with bright colors, embellishing floral motifs, scalloped edges on the eye sockets, and paired with flower crowns or fancy hats.
If you would like to take part in Día De Los Muertos festivities and join me and my fellow Mexican people in remembering our loved ones, here are 10 traditional Catrina makeup looks you'll love.
Día De Los Muertos Makeup Essentials
When it comes to creating a Catrina makeup look, refrain from using greasy oil-based face paints—it’s gooey and never seems to set. Instead, try a water-based theatrical makeup or poke around your makeup bag for your most pigmented and long-wearing colors. Día De Los Muertos festivities run well into the night and early into the morning, so it's important your makeup can withstand the dancing, singing, and eating. Scroll down to shop the products you'll need from some of our favorite Latina-owned brands.
A jumbo black eyeshadow or eyeliner pencil will be your best friend when creating the looks above. It's just the right tool to make drawing details on your face much easier.
A long-wearing lipstick is just what you need to add tons of color to your face. Add bright details to your Catrina makeup look with chubby lipstick like a marker, or with a detail brush. And the best part is lipsticks come in a variety of hues these days, so you'll have plenty of options.
On the other hand, if you need more color options, eyeliner is where it's at.
The Catrina makeup is all about the details. In order to give your Día De Los Muertos look the dimension and precision it deserves, you'll need a good set of detailing makeup brushes.
Last, but not least, a setting spray is just what you need to keep your festive makeup look in place until the wee hours in the morning. Spritz your makeup in between application, after you've finished applying your look, and throughout the evening to keep it in place and looking fresh.