Skeletons, Samhain and Sacatepéquez

Me as “Lady Death”

This is my favorite holiday season of the year — Halloween, Samhain, Dia de los Muertos — when it is said that the veil between the two worlds is thinnest allowing us humans beings to more easily connect with our ancestors and spirit guides. As a child, I was intrigued and afraid of the celebration of death, spirits and “witches” yet somehow knowing that the narrative around this “devil’s holiday” was patriarchal, simplistic and just plain wrong. As I traveled more and did my own research, I was led to the images of skeletons and skulls, along with the push to release fear of the spirit world and instead embrace my ancestors, known and unknown.

I was first introduced to Dia de los Santos and Dia de los Muertos celebrations when I traveled to Guatemala for work eight years ago today. Because I love the spectacle and revelry of Halloween, I was a bit sad about being out of the United States but certainly was looking forward to experiencing Dia de los Santos for the first time in a country where it is taken seriously. (To cure my Halloween craving, I scared the bejesus out of myself by watching a subtitled Saw V in a theater in Guatemala City and then (barely) slept with the lights on.)

The next morning I got up early to catch a local bus to Sacatepéquez, home to one of the largest Dia de los Santos kite festivals (Feria de Barillete Gigante) in the country. The adorable owner of the bed and breakfast told me to visit the cemeteries there to see the kite flying contests, families decorating the tombs of their loved ones, and the street vendors. I was amazed at the ornate kites made of entirely of tissue paper and bamboo towering over the cemeteries, standing as tall as the trees. The kites honor God, nature, ancestors and the country itself.

Massive kite at the Santiago Sacatepéquez Kite Festival in Guatemala, 2008

Seeing how people spend this day with family celebrating their loved ones and reaffirming their connections with their ancestors led me to dig more into ancestral-based spirituality. It inspired me to reframe death as a natural part of life and to acknowledge that it’s part of transformation. For the next 3 years I tentatively tiptoed into Yoruba spirituality with many loving guides and a few unscrupulous ones.

A few years later in the midst of an emotional breakup, someone wise advised me to read “Women Who Run With the Wolves.” It’s a collection of folk stories from various cultures about women’s instinctual wild nature and the ways in which patriarchal culture tries to strip it from us. When I read the story of the “Skeleton Woman,” a beautiful Inuit tale about the life-death-life cycle of relationships (particularly romantic ones) and it forever changed the way I think about skeletons, bones, fear and death. I became obsessed with the symbolism of bones signifying the resilience of the spirit. I felt comforted in the idea of death opening the door for more life and creation, another reminder that it’s cyclical. It seems obvious that death allows for rebirth but can be tough to allow things to die so they may transform. I embodied the skeleton woman imagery as a means to heal my own heart and a reminder that the death feeling I was experiencing was opening the door to new beginnings. Sometimes you gotta destroy to rebuild.

The Skeleton Woman gives no effs.

A few months later, I created a burlesque piece inspired by the story remixed to Erykah Badu. The troupe I was in created an entire show around the book so embodying the skeleton woman energy on stage helped own it more in real life. And rattling bones are quite fun to dance in.

I have a skeleton woman inspired tattoo that I got somewhat impulsely in Mexico City in 2014 at another time when my heart was processing a lot of heavy emotions. It’s a sugar skull with wings and hibiscus flowers. In the midst of transforming my ideas around self-love and sacrifice, I needed some intense skeleton energy to remind me that I’m tough, feminine and airy… and to fly through the love’s cycles with grit and grace. The hibiscus connects me to my island ancestry (I found out later it is Haiti’s national flower) and I was living in (Isla Mujeres, Mexico) at the time. Frankly I also wanted to get inked in Mexico City because of the city’s dope art history.

After only three hours, I had some fresh ink.

As I continue to be drawn to skeleton symbolism, I try to be cognizant of cultural appropriation. As a Black woman I’m no stranger to it and how frustrating it is. I wonder if and when I straddle the line as because travel or media often takes me to foreign places and spaces where I find inspiration. Being in Guatemala and an Inuit tale profoundly affected my spiritual development, and I’m from neither culture (that I know of). It’s our responsibility as outsiders to show regard the traditions of other people especially marginalized communities. My approach is that I can learn from these cultures respectfully while finding my own ancestral connections. I have failed at times but age, experience and humility really help. I wonder about past lives, or our ancestors we don’t know about and how they draw us in certain directions. Either way, respect and gratitude is at the core and paves the way for deeper connection among the beautiful variety of people on this planet.