October 21, 2014

Dia de los Muertos – Symbols and Imagery

 “Mourning was not allowed because it was believed the tears would make the spirits path treacherous and slippery. This day is a joyous occasion; it’s a time to gather with everyone in your family, those alive and those dead.”

— Hayes Lavis, Cultural Arts Curator, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

In times past, each year the ancient Aztecs celebrated Mictecacihuatl, the goddess of the underworld. She was also known as the Lady of the Dead, and her role was to watch over the bones of the dead. She is often depicted as a skeleton with an open jaw so “she might swallow the stars to brighten the day.”

From a previous AAC Dia de los Muertos workshop - with the help of an the instructor, a student decides how to decorate his calavera
At a previous Dia de los Muertos workshop a student decides how to decorate his calavera with the help of his instructor

Over time the celebration evolved to include both Aztec and Catholic traditions, to become what is known as Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead. Celebrated throughout the world in varied iterations, the holiday is a celebration of the lives of loved ones lost.

For more than ten years, Arlington Arts Center has celebrated this holiday with a free community event, featuring Mexican hot chocolate and pan de muerto, live mariachi music, traditional dancing, and arts workshops.

At the heart of each celebration, is an exhibition featuring the work of local artists who incorporate Day of the Dead symbols and imagery into their work. For AAC’s 11th Annual Day of the Dead Celebration, seventeen artists have been selected to show work inspired by the holiday and its distinct iconography.

Read on for AAC’s quick guide to Day of the Dead symbols and their significance. Not only will you find these in AAC’s Day of the Dead exhibition, but in all celebrations of this special holiday…

Calavera (Sugar Skulls)

sugar skullsA prominent and recognizable feature of Day of the Dead. Crafted from a mixture of granulated sugar and meringue powder these molded skulls are decorated with bright patterns and colorful designs, representing the vitality of life and the unique personalities of people.

Calaca (Skeletons)

Can take on many forms, some are tall and skinny, others are short and squat, some have large heads others have small ones; however, all skeletons are depicted as joyful and happy, never scary or sad. Often, the skeletons are dressed in fancy clothes and then, placed in entertaining situations. This is done to portray the lives of the deceased and to remember the shared moments.


Swallowtail on marigolds

Monarch butterflies are often seen in Mexican traditions. Monarchs, in particular, migrate to Mexico every fall and are thought to be the spirits of ancestors coming to visit.


Are often used in Day of the Dead celebrations. Referred to as flor de muerto or flower of the dead, marigolds are thought to attract souls to the ofrendas decorated in their honor to welcome them.

Ofrenda (Altar)

An ofrenda from AAC's 2011 Dia de los Muertos exhibition

Altars and other special locations are adorned with mementos, photographs, and keepsakes belonging to the dead. These articles are used to help the spirits find the “right” altar where they can find their family waiting for them.

Pan de Muerto (bread of the dead)

Food is used to connect the dead to the living world and to help them on their journey back to the underworld. Traditionally, the deceased’s favorite foods are laid onto altars along with pan de muerto, a semi-sweet bread is baked and dusted with sugar to represent the soil that the bodies are buried in.

Papel Picado (Perforated Paper)

papel picadoA delicate cut tissue paper used to decorate the spaces which are being used to honor the dead. These colorful, but fragile decorations represent the fragility of life.

Join us for the Day of the Dead Celebration on Saturday, November 1, from 6-8 p.m., featuring a live mariachi band, a dance performance and lesson by Ballet Folklorico Mi Herencia Mexicana, pan de muerto and Mexican hot chocolate, and arts workshops for children, ages 7-10 and 11-14! Enroll now – only $10!

AAC’s Day of the Dead exhibition opens that night, so along with the festivities, you can meet and mingle with some of the artists selected to show in the exhibition.

AAC’s Dia de los Muertos Celebration is sponsored by the Arlington Community Foundation and the Arlington Sister City Association

Performances by Isa Leal & Liz Ensz + Skye Fort in conversation with NO GRIDS NO MASTERS

Saturday / April 20 / 6pm-8pm

An evening of performances by Isa Leal and Liz Ensz + Skye Fort in conversation with Ensz’s exhibition NO GRIDS NO MASTERS currently on view at MoCA Arlington.

Artist Talk at the Innovation Studio + Store: Chris Combs

Wednesday / April 17 / 6pm-7pm

Join us for a conversation with current Innovation Studio artist in residence Chris Combs and Blair Murphy, MoCA Arlington’s curator of exhibitions, about Combs’s new wall-sized installation The Next Big Thing.

2024 Art Classes for Kids, Teens, and Adults!

Register now! Classes begin April 7!

Less than 2 weeks left to register! Sign up today to secure your spot in one of MoCA Arlington’s award-winning programs! From drawing and painting to ceramics and mixed media, you are sure to find an inspiring art class. Enrich your creative journey with our talented instructors and explore the world of art in a fun and supportive environment.