The skull and crossbones, also called “calavera” in Spanish, representing a human skull, is typical of Mexico. A festival is even particularly dedicated to death, where many skulls are used as decorative elements. Far from being macabre, during this festival, Mexicans, in order to make this holiday significant, remember their dead by organizing festive meals and activities such as the construction of altars. In Mexico, the dead also have their own special day, just like Valentine’s Day, to be celebrated just like the living. This is a tradition that Mexicans still honor today. Do you want to know more about this mythical skull, its origin and its use? This complete article will tell you absolutely everything!

All you need to know about Mexican skulls


Mexican skulls are recognized around the world as an integral part of Mexican Day of the Dead culture. Find out why in the following lines!


Mexican skulls are a symbol of the cultural traditions celebrated in Mexico on the Day of the Dead. While to some they may seem Machiavellian, to Mexicans they represent happiness in the afterlife. In Mexico, the Day of the Dead is celebrated on November 1st and 2nd. It is usually a big colorful party, full of flowers and food, celebrating the lives of those special people who have left this world. The most important and representative character of this important day are the Mexican skulls, also called catrinas and if you want to know what a catrina is and what its origin is, in this post we will tell you everything you need to know about them. If you want to find the typical Mexican atmosphere, we also recommend you to visit the Tienda Alma Latina store.

The specifics of calaveras

Mexico has some very original stories, such as that of the skulls that this country honors so much. Regarding the origin of the Mexican skull, it is not just a skull, it is actually much more than that. During the time of the different pre-Columbian civilizations, the use of skulls would come directly from an ancient Aztec custom. Since prehistoric times, the skull has been an image that alludes to pre-Columbian societies and cultures. One of the most prominent representations was the tzompantli, a form of wooden support in which were placed the skulls of prisoners of war or individuals who had been given in sacrifice to the gods. It should be noted that ancient civilizations such as the Maya probably believed that there was indeed an afterlife. Thus, the tzompantli was used to give offerings to Mictlantecuhtli, their god of the underworld. Maintaining a good relationship with this power was essential. Indeed, it was he who led the soul into his domain in peace. If he wished, he could retain a soul in his empire for several years.  When the Spaniards settled in Mexico in the sixteenth century, they did away with the native religion and human sacrifice. But nevertheless, the Mexicans kept their tradition of the skull and crossbones as a sign of consideration for their deceased.

Meaning of the skull and crossbones

An important notion to keep in mind, Mexican skulls are not at all significant of the sadness of death. In fact, it is not a literal tribute. The emphasis is rather on remembering the moments of happiness and joy that their dead have known despite the fact that they are no longer in this world. So, the goal is to immortalize the spirit of joy of living that the dead had. Thus, the heads of the dead are customarily decorated with various accessories that recall what the dead enjoyed. This custom has created a strong bond among the Mexican people during the celebration of their “Dia de los Muertos”.

The use of the skull

The skull and crossbones, in addition to its commercial use as a staple for the Day of the Dead, has also been remade in many forms including sculptures and paintings sold as souvenirs or displayed in museums for tourist visits. On the other hand, to show more consideration and love for the deceased, tattoos are made on the body of the person wishing to be remembered. The image speaks for the dead person. The Mexican skull tattoo often has different positions. We can see them on the forearm, on the back, on the calves, sometimes even on the feet. The Mexican skull tattoo is very significant because it has several important details.

What is a catrina and what is its origin?

Catrinas were born from a simple drawing in the 19th century, when Mexico was going through the greatest political crisis of all times. Due to the situation that the country was going through, many Mexican cartoonists began to create drawings with a satirical humor, such as José Guadalupe Posada, who was the first to draw Mexican skulls.

This type of drawings were published in the most popular newspapers in Mexico, such as “El Socialista” and “Hijo de Ahuizote”. The drawings were the cartoonists’ way of expressing the feelings of the people of the time. Specifically, the cartoons critically showed how the high societies of the country were impoverishing the population more and more and they represented this through different drawings of skulls. Each cartoon told different stories, which talked about social classes, politics and how they differed from each other.

At that time, skulls did not represent the symbolism of today, but they became more and more popular and thanks to two important engravings, they were much more recognized until they became what they are today.

The engravings that popularized the Mexican skulls

In 1973, a drawing was made on a metal surface that represents a strong criticism of garbanceros. Specifically, the garbanceros were those indigenous people who sold chickpeas and wanted to look like Europeans, thus denying their culture and origins. The drawing represented a skeletal woman, dressed in a hat of French origin with a prominent ostrich feather, it was called “La Calavera Garbancera” (the Garbanceros’ skull).

Later, it was Diego Rivera who named the calavera garbancera as a catrina. He painted a mural entitled “Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central” (Dream of a Sunday afternoon in the Alameda Central) and depicting a skull dressed in an outfit with a feather stole. At that time, people from high society who dressed elegantly were called “Catrín” and that’s where the name of this new catrina made by Diego Rivera, the husband of the super famous Frida Kahlo, comes from.

From that moment on, the catrinas were designed as a mockery of the living and the dead of the upper social class. Currently, this work is on display at the Diego Rivera Mural Museum in Mexico City.

Produits dérivés des têtes de mort mexicaines

What do Mexican skulls mean today?

There are an infinite number of skulls painted with very different colors and patterns that make everyone notice them immediately, wherever they are.

All this play of clothes and colors of skulls reflects that we are all going to die and that, therefore, we should not be afraid of death. Mexican skulls are made from sugar cane or clay and are used as an innocent and harmless decoration to represent death in a much more joyful way, to remember the dead without sadness and that is why the skulls are always painted with a smile. On the other hand, this tradition also encompasses the ancient Aztec culture, since the skulls were used to pay tribute to Mictecacihuatl, known as the goddess of death.

Nowadays, people, especially women, paint their faces like catrinas on Mexico’s Day of the Dead and parade to celebrate the event.

Day of the Dead Expressions

  • “Se lo llevó la flaca”.
  • “Estiró la pata”.
  • “Ya se patateó”.
  • “Se lo llevó la calaca”.

And like these, you can hear many other expressions when a person dies in Mexico. person dies in Mexico. You have probably seen the famous Disney movie called “Coco”. In it, shows beautifully what the Day of the Dead is for the Mexican people and we can clearly see how the and we can clearly see how the catrinas take control of the movie from beginning to end.

Did you enjoy learning about the origin of Mexican skulls and what they represent today? We hope you now have a much broader knowledge of these Mexican traditions.