The Grand Dame of Day of the Dead

Few images in Mexico are as ubiquitous or have the depth of meaning as the female grinning skeleton with a large overly-adorned hat and a gown from the late 19th century.

She is known as La Calavera Catrina (The Catrina Skull) or simply La Catrina. Her image, and those since derived from it, can not only be seen in Mexican handcrafts,  but also in Mexico graphic and fine art. In fact, it is the latter two which brought this particular figure to life.

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Print sheet with skeletal imagry dedicated to Oaxaca by Posada (1903)

Catrina began as one of a number of skeletal figures created by José Guadalupe Posada, a graphic artist publishing in Mexico City newspapers in the late 19th and very early 20th centuries. His importance to the development of post Mexican Revolution culture cannot be overstated, deserving of its own article.

 

Originally La Catrina was only a head with the large ornate hats popular among the upper classes of late 19th century (as in the main image), when the fashion and politics were heavily influenced by European trends, so much so that many indigenous and dark-skinned women abandoned traditional clothes and even wore makeup to make their skin look lighter (something still seen today). Posada’s original name for the figure was La Calavera Garbancera, which referred to such women in those times.

Diego Rivera took this image and added a body and dress to complete the look in the mural Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday afternoon in the Alameda Central).

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Catrina with Diego Rivera as a boy (left). Frida Kahlo is behind Rivera.

To say that Posada invented La Catrina is not to say that he dreamt her up out of nothing. Images of skulls and skeletons for both religious and secular commentary dates back centuries in the Mexican psyche, long before the Spanish conquest. Posada and Rivera simply made a more modern version, adapted to the social and political issues of the time. One of these in particular is Mexico’s fairly rigid class structure, with La Catrina as a reminder that death equalizes all of us in the end. The reason alone may be enough to explain the figure’s continuing popularity in all Mexican arts including handcrafts and folk art.

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From the Codex Tovar. Page dedicated to the god Huitzilopochlti with skull rack called a tzompantli.

Figures of La Catrina can be found in all kinds of materials, from clay, to wood, to paper mache (cartoneria) and more. Her image (with or without the full body) can be part of the decoration of any number of items including utensils, bowls, furniture, papel picado, clothing and more. She is also a quite popular image for makeup and costumes.

There are no images that approach her popularity, perhaps because no matter where she appears, even on a t-shirt, there is no danger of the image devolving into kitsch because Death’s semi-venerated status in Mexico.

There are several handcraft traditions which are strongly linked to this image. She is a major figure in Day of the Dead decorations, featured on altars and has since inspired innumerable variations of skeletons imitating the living, especially in cartoneria. While most often made and seen in October/November, La Catrina remains one of (if not the) most popular figure made in paper mache, as well as papel picado. The small town of Capula, Michoacan is famous in part for the making of Catrina figure, often with fine details from local clay. She can be accompanied by a gentlemen in dapper clothes from the same period, called El Catrino. In October, the town hosts an even exclusively dedicated to these figures.

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Catrinas from Capula, Michoacán
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Catrina and Catrino of cartonería at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City

Skeletal images imitating the living are popular in general, and can be found in quite modern dress and settings, but none of these as of yet are close to dethoning La Catrina.

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Image credits:

José Guadalupe Posada, José Guadalupe Posada,  Diego Rivera, author known, Cristina Zapata Pérez, Leigh Thelmadatter, Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art, Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art, Mah9426, Kar Rajme, Norma Ps, Tonc ec, Guillerminargp, Veltresnas, Alejandro Linares Garcia, El Comandante, Merystef

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