Few images in Mexico are as ubiquitous or have the depth of meaning as the female grinning skeleton with a large overly-adorned hat from the late 19th century. She is known as La Calavera Catrina (The Catrina Skull) or more simply as La Catrina. I have been fascinated with her image and her representations since moving to México many years ago. However, I had never made the time to learn what La Catrina was all about. The time was finally here since we are only days away from one of my favorite annual celebrations in México, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). So let’s meet and greet La Catrina!
LA CATRINA’S ORIGINS
Jose Guadalupe Posada’s calaveras (images of skulls or skeletons) were intended as social satire. La Catrina was depicted as a female skeleton dressed only in a hat befitting the upper class dress of Europeans of the early 20th century. She was created as a satirical portrait of those Mexicans who Posada felt were aspiring to adopt European aristocratic traditions in the pre-revolution era. La Catrina also symbolized the contrasts between the upper and lower classes prior to the Mexican revolution.
The image of la Calavera Catrina made from a zinc etching captures the famous calavera or skull/skeleton images that had become popular at the turn of the 20th century. She was described as a person who was ashamed of her indigenous origins and dressed imitating the French style while wearing lots of makeup to make his skin look whiter. This description also ties to the original name Garbancera which became a nickname given to people of indigenous ancestry who imitated European style and denied their own cultural heritage.
LA CATRINA’S CULTURAL AND SOCIAL POPULARITY
The intent seemed to be to show the tradition of welcoming and comfort the Mexicans have with death and especially the identity of a lady of death which heralded back to the heritage of the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl.
The central focus of the mural is a display of bourgeois complacency and values shortly before the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Elegantly dressed upper-class figures promenade under the figure of the long ruling dictator Porfirio Díaz. An indigenous family is forced back by police batons and to the right flames and violence loom. The center of the mural is dominated by the elegantly dressed skeleton, La Calavera Catrina, holding arms with the Mexican graphic artist who first conceived and drew her, José Guadalupe Posada, in a black suit and cane.
On La Catrina's right she is holding hands with a child version of Diego Rivera in short pants. Rivera's wife Frida Kahlo is standing just behind and between him and La Catrina; Kahlo has her hand on Rivera's shoulder and she is holding a yin-yang device.
As explained by curator David de la Torre from the LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes (Mexican-American Museum and Cultural Center in Los Angeles, California, USA), La Catrina has come to symbolize not only El Día de los Muertos and the Mexican willingness to laugh at death itself, but originally Catrina was an elegant or well-dressed woman, so it refers to rich people, de la Torre said. "Death brings this neutralizing force; everyone is equal in the end. Sometimes people have to be reminded of that."
LA CATRINA'S "PAINTED FACE" FOR DIA DE LOS MUERTOS
In time La Catrina became the iconic image of the annual Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, celebrations in México. More recently La Catrina has also been seen in the company of male skeletons called Los Catrines (plural of El Catrín). Definitely a sign of our contemporary times.
I find the painted faces of Catrina absolutely fantastic! Here are just a few with a description of the symbols that are typically found.
A mixture of Aztec and European symbolism infuse the meaning of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) face painting designs. The tradition is a mixture of Catholic beliefs with the religions of indigenous Mexican people.
The most common design is to paint the face to resemble a skull. For people not familiar with Latin American culture, this might seem strange and even scary. However, the skull has a uniquely positive meaning in Dias de los Muertos, very different from the skeletons and ghosts of Halloween. The multi-day holiday is an opportunity for families and friends to gather, pray for, honor, celebrate, and remember friends and family members who have died.
Although the face painting is not exactly an ancient tradition, the calavera design itself is quite old. Skulls (also known as calaveras or calacas in Mexico) are an essential part of the symbolism of Dia de los Muertos in Mexico. They are used not only as the basis for painting faces, but also are the shape of candy such as sugar skulls and for many skeleton-inspired decorations.
In Mexico the Aztec culture believed life on earth to be something of an illusion. Death was a positive step forward into a higher level of consciousness. For the Aztecs skulls were a positive symbol not only of death, but also of rebirth.
People in Mexico wear traditional skull masks and the tradition of painting faces to look like skulls has grown up as a variation of this custom. Masks have always been powerful objects in many cultures which often allow the wearer to get in touch with their darker and chaotic side. Skull face painting can be viewed as a chance to overcome fear of death and get mischievous which is forbidden at other times of the year.
Flowers are also symbolically important. Many skull designs incorporate flowers and the one that is most closely associated with Dia de los Muertos is the marigold which is known as the flower of the dead. In Aztec belief, the marigold was sacred to Mictlantecuhtli, the god of the dead. When the souls of departed family and friends return to earth it is believed the strong scent of marigold helps to guide them back.
Here comes the La Catrina bride with her fiancé and "bodyguard"!
Flowers are often incorporated into the face-painted skull designs. This mixing of skulls and flowers may seem strange to some, unless you remember their purpose which is to overcome the fear of death and celebrate life.
I sincerely hope you have enjoyed meeting Catrina as much as I have enjoyed learning more about this iconic Mexican figure. Catrina certainly has quite a place not only in México history, but also in the traditional Dia de los Muertos celebrations which honor those who have passed on. La Catrina is definitely one busy lady!
Here is the link to my photograph album created in honor of La Catrina:
LA CATRINA PHOTO ALBUM
And the following link will take you to my previous Dia de los Muertos blog posting:
DIA DE LOS MUERTOS IN MEXICO