If there is something music performer Paula Sánchez-Kucukozer is obsessed with, it is skulls. Her shoulder bag has a Mexican skull design; her necklace has a Mexican skull pendant; hanging on her keychain, there are a colorful Mexican skull and a cardholder that she opens to hand me her business card – with a Mexican skull on the back.
The first thing people see when they enter her Queens apartment is a shelf full of books about Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead, and colorful Mexican skulls – made of wood, clay, papier-mâché, and even sugar.
“How many skulls do you think I have there?” she asks her husband.
“Too many to count,” he sighs.
The skulls – calaveras in Spanish – are a symbol of Día de Muertos, a holiday Paula is fascinated by. Celebrated in Mexico from October 28 to November 2, it is about honoring and remembering those who have passed away. It is traditionally celebrated at home or the cemetery with family members, by building altars with food, candles, and marigold flowers.
As part of the celebrations, people make decorated sugar skulls. It evokes the idea that death is bittersweet. “You have the skull, which is a symbol of death, but when you look at it, it’s also something beautiful,” she says. “Well, obviously not for the person who died.”
Paula is a member of Son Pecadores, a group dedicated to promoting son jarocho, a folkloric music style from the Mexican state of Veracruz that mixes elements from Spanish, indigenous, and African cultures. They perform mostly during the fall season, coinciding with the celebrations of Día de Muertos, and will be at the New York Public Library’s Sunset Park branch on Nov. 2.
Though Paula is originally from Guadalajara, Mexico, she didn’t celebrate Día de Muertos so much growing up– all because of her father. When he was a kid, his mother had a shrine made of tissue paper, with candles and food. “He accidentally knocked over the candles and burned the whole thing,” she says with a laugh. “My grandmother was so upset she didn’t celebrate the holiday ever since.”
The skull on the back of Paula’s card has also become connected to Día de Muertos, but it’s a bit different from the decorated, colorful ones: it is “La Calavera Catrina,” an illustration made by Mexican cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada in the 1910s. The cartoon depicts a skeleton wearing an early 20th century-style hat, and its title can be translated as “Dapper Skeleton.” Posada made it as a satirical portrait of Mexicans who tried to adopt European aristocratic traditions.
“It shows that after we die, it doesn’t matter how much money we have,” Paula explains. “We are all the same.”
She started dressing up as La Catrina in 2011 to participate in workshops and festivals, and to read books for her students – she is also a Spanish teacher. It takes her two hours to get into full Catrina costume, which consists of a Victorian-looking dress, a big hat with feathers, and skull makeup she puts on herself. “I have to wear that white clown makeup so it really lasts,” she says. “It takes time, but I love it!”
On this rainy Sunday afternoon, however, she looks casual and barefaced. Still, she did not go unnoticed as she entered this cramped Starbucks in Washington Heights carrying a square black bag almost the size of the coffee table we sit by.
The purple striped t-shirt, leggings and gym shoes she is wearing are fitting for all the dancing and music-playing she and her husband are doing later with Son Pecadores. Traditionally, son jarocho is played at fandangos, community celebrations where people gather in a circle to play music, sing, and dance, and that can go on for days. The dance comes in the form of zapateado, in which the dancer stomps a rhythm on top of the wooden platform around which the others are gathered. “Whoever wants to dance, dances, whoever wants to sing, sings,” Paula says.
Inside the huge bag, there is a marimbol, an instrument that consists of a wood box with metal strips to be plucked, which serves as a bassline for the music. She also plays the guitar and the jarana, a guitar-shaped instrument with eight strings that can come in at least five different sizes. Her husband, a Turkish-American sociologist, plays the jarana as well. “He practices more than me,” she says. “He plays it every day.”
The two met when he went to Mexico to study, and they moved to New York in 2000. She was 22 and did not know anyone in the city – it took her seven years to meet other Mexicans.
Her whole family still lives in Guadalajara and she visits them at least once a year. Her parents are now retired; her mother worked for the Mexican daycare system as an administrator, and her father was a sixth-grade teacher. He has participated in different bands since he was a teenager – playing rock, ballads, and classic Spanish songs – and was the one who encouraged Paula and her siblings to take music classes as kids. “He and his former classmates still get together once a month to play,” Paula says. “Yes, they are very old.”
With all its symbolism, Día de Muertos has gained more popularity over the past few years, which Paula sees positively. “People are afraid of feeling sad,” she says. “And the day is a good opportunity to just be joyful about those who are already gone, remember them and their legacy.”
At the same time, she is concerned about the cultural appropriation that comes with it. “You go to any store now, and they sell a lot of Day of the Dead stuff, especially for Halloween,” she says. “And I would never dress up as La Catrina for Halloween.”