Colorful and elegant , the skull became a festive symbol of Dia de los Muertos. But his original creation had a meaning beyond the fatality of death. The Catrina Calavera is a ubiquitous image during Day of the Dead. She is a figure of Mexican folk culture and part of the Trinity: Santa Muerte , Day of the Dead, La Catrina. They can be found in costumes, food, paintings, and dolls, among other things. If you totally join the good « vibes » of the Day of the Dead, we invite you to get our best silver ring with a Mexican skull.
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Everywhere you look on the streets during the Day of the Dead celebrations in Latin America, a familiar face will spring to mind. A face that juxtaposes the macabre and the elegant. You will find it in the painted faces of the children, in the elaborate costumes of the women, in the « bread of the dead » of the festival or in any shop window that sells souvenirs and emblems of this popular festival with its unique atmosphere.
This face has a very specific look: a skull wearing an elegant embroidered hat glittering with flowers. It’s La Calavera Catrina(the « elegant skull »), often simply La Catrina. And festive as it may seem, the presence of La Catrina in Day of the Dead Mexican mythology is a much deeper affirmation of mortality, fate, and the division of social classes.
1) The Lady of the Dead
La Catrina wasn’t the first grande dame of the afterlife in Latin America. This honor belongs to Mictēcacihuātl , the Aztec underworld queen of Chicunamictlan. Her job was to watch over the bones of the dead , and her presence was central to any recognition of the deceased.
This is an illustration of the Aztec goddess Mictēcacihuātl referred to in the Codex Borgia manuscript , a manual of Mesoamerican worship said to have been written before the Spanish conquest.
And where had all the departed souls gone? Mesoamerican belief was that the dead make a journey down nine levels to the depths of Chicunamictlan. The ancients’ view of death was not gloomy or taboo. They viewed it as part of the cycle of life and celebrated the departed by leaving offerings on makeshift altars or « ofrendas » to aid them in their later trials.
These ofrendas are still associated today with the Day of the Dead, which has also influenced pagan and catholic celebration customs over the centurieshas absorbed. As an example, consider the dates of these celebrations, which coincide with the feast of All Saints’ Day and the Day of the Dead on November 1 and 2, respectively. However, the defining image of the modern holiday emerged much later, and comes from an unexpected source.
2) The origins of a Mexican icon
The skeleton wearing the hat we see today was created by artist José Guadalupe Posada in the early 1900s . Posada was a controversial and politically active cartoonist. He was popular with the people and satirically drew, carving skeletal skulls (« calaveras ») to remind people that they would all die eventually.
He is said to have the female skeleton with the appearance of a dandy with a fancy plumed hatDrawn because some Mexicans aspired to look rich and aristocratic like the Europeans of the time. A satirical drawing intended to remind people to be themselves and stop trying to be someone or something they weren’t. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, it doesn’t matter what color your skin is, and it doesn’t matter what society you belong to, in the end we will all be skeletons. This was Posada’s message with his numerous caricatures of Cavaleras, which he sketched as part of various everyday activities. One of his most popular sayings was » Death is democratic « . Simple but so true!
Diego Rivera, famed artist and husband of Frida Kahlo, immortalized La Catrina in one of his murals depicting 400 years of Mexican history. The mural « Sunday Afternoon Dreams in Alameda Park » was painted in 1942 and depicts several important Mexican figures. La Catrina is particularly prominent in this 15 meter long fresco. He painted a self-portrait of him as a child holding hands, with her in the front row. Rivera painted her in sophisticated attire and an extravagant feathered hat, creating the look she is famous for today. The mural can be viewed at the Museum of Diego Rivera Murals in Mexico City. Definitely worth visiting when in Mexico City!
From there, La Catrina became a powerful symbol of the many activities and celebrations of the Day of the Dead . The women put on make-up and wear elegant clothes reminiscent of the famous symbolic skeleton. The celebrations take place in the cemeteries (« panteóns ») where there is a happy atmosphere. There, people cheerfully commemorate their departed loved ones by giving them flowers and some of their favorite foods and drinks during their lifetime.
La Catrina is a popular tourist attraction and can be found as a statue in wood, clay or paper mache in many local shops in Mexico. These statues are eloquently painted and real feathers are added to the hats. Many people buy these statuettes and bring them back as souvenirs from their stay in Mexico. There’s no mistaking her identity: La Catrina is 100% Mexican! She seduced us, so of course we couldn’t help but suggest the La Catrina t-shirt .
The Lady of the Dead is a powerful visual image that represents the way Mexicans view death and the afterlife. Different cultures have different traditions regarding death and how they deal with it individually or in the family.
Mexico has a unique perspective on this life phenomenon, preferring to look at it with a positive and passionate approach. That doesn’t mean they don’t mourn or miss a loved one who has passed away. What it means is that they choose to celebrate the life and memories the person created while they were with them, rather than mourn the thought that they are gone forever.
Planning your next trip to Mexico during Día de los Muertos will surely give you a good picture of the Mexican people and their attitude towards life and existence.
La Catrina means living your true nature and not pretending to be someone you are not. It doesn’t matter what you look like or where you’re from, in the end you’ll be reduced to a skeleton like everyone else !
3) La Calavera Catrina: Zeichnung von José Posada, dann Diego Rivera
The original sketch for Posada’s La Calavera Catrina was made around 1910. It was intended as a satire, referring to the obsessions of military leader Porfirio Diaz’s European upper class. His corruption led to the 1911 Mexican Revolution and the overthrow of his regime. The sketch’s original name reflected this cultural appropriation adopted by some members of Mexican society: La Calavera Garbancera . Some sources refer to the latter word as slang for a woman who is abandoning her Mexican culture and embracing the European aesthetic. The later baptism is also said to be from the slang, as the word « catrin » or « catrina » is often used for a well-dressed man or woman or « dandy ».
The original comic strip La Calavera Catrina by Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada. It is believed to have been drawn around 1910 when the Mexican Revolution was gaining momentum.
The image was later transformed into a mural by Diego Rivera in Mexico City, depicting an essential « La Catrina » in a ostentatious long dress. This La Catrina held the hands of Posada, its original inventor, and also Rivera herself as a child, under the eyes of Rivira’s wife, the artist Frida Kahlo. The mural Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in downtown Alameda became a cultural treasure and further reinforced the image of La Catrina in the national consciousness.
This mural by Diego Rivera depicts the most important moments and events in Mexican history .
4) Popular Character of “Dia de los Muertos”
The adoption of La Catrina as the emblem of today’s Day of the Dead takes many forms. One can find sugar skulls in all the shop windows, make-up and dresses exhibited by festival-goers from all over the world, men and women, Catrin and Catrina. In many ways it connects the eras and their interpretation of death. Her elegant dress suggests solemnity. Her unmistakable smile reminds us that perhaps there is some consolation in accepting mortality and that the dead should be remembered and not feared. Whoever you are, we all share the same destiny. Finally, this image would help refer to the most ancient beliefs of this culture, according to which the custodian of what comes after life takes a decidedly female form.
Are you interested in Mexican folklore? Then check out our best articles on Mexican Skulls, Calaveras, Santa Muerte and more!