Their ball gowns drag at their feet and elaborate headpieces dwarf their tiny faces. A large feather in one woman’s sun-hat tickles the sky, while another uses a crown of flowers to grace her up-swept ebony hair. The grandeur and beauty of the outfits brings their flesh-less features some much needed color. The women smile, pleased to display their finery to all assembled. They are often flanked by well-dressed escorts, gentlemen in dark suits and equally toothy grins. They are the Dapper Skeletons, and Catrina is their queen.
These flamboyant monsters make their yearly appearance every November 1st during the Day of the Dead festival. You will see them all over Mexico and into parts of the United States, anywhere a large population of Hispanics make their homes.
With October, and all its fiendish fun rapidly approaching, I wanted to give a brief introduction to this colorful monster. Don’t worry if you want to know more about Day of the Dead celebration where Catrina can be found, Part Time Monster will be doing a post on that festival next month. However, this post is Catrina’s moment to shine.
The first thing to know about La Calavera Catrina is she is not same character as Santa Muerte. Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte is a widely worshiped Hispanic death saint. Granted, the two ladies share some common attributes; they are both skeletal and women. Also Santa Muerte may have inspired Catrina. However, one is clothed in simple and somber robes, often associated with a Catholic nun. Santa Muerte also often carries a scythe, think female grim reaper, and other symbols associated with death. Catrina is usually surrounded in vivid and joyous color, she is also decidedly feminine. With only the bony hands and skull of Santa Muerte visible, it’s not clear to someone unfamiliar with Catholic symbolism what gender she is. Catrinas, of both doll and human types, wear flowers, feathers, jewelry and sparkles of every kind. She dresses in everything from simple homespun textiles and embroidered muslin, to elaborate period costumes that take months to make and cost a fortune. Some Catrina outfits are passed down by older generations as family heirlooms. I have a box of items from my family and although they grow frail with age (despite my archival quality preservation tactics) these items mean the world to me.
Catrina’s current form is a relative newcomer to Latin American folklore, dating from about 1910. This well-dressed version is a adaptation, a blending of older Aztec views of death with more Western idea. She also contains a big dash of social commentary throw in for good measure.
The image most often associated with Catrina is an etching made by Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada. Posada wanted to make a statement about social identity and race in per-revolutionary Mexico. He intended the image to draw attention to how the indigenous population worked hard to emulate the habits and dress of the wealthy gentry, those of Spanish decent. These elites in turn drew their style inspiration from aristocratic Europeans. Later Catrina showed up in political cartoons disdainful of people using cosmetics to whiten their skin. Natives of darker skins did this so they could pass as the descendants of European immigrants.
Catrina’s image took on greater fame when muralist Diego Rivera (no relation) used Posada and Catrina in “Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda” a mural that showcased important historical figures from over 400 years Mexico’s history.
Please note Catrina is wearing a feathered serpent as a boa. This garment stands for one of the most important Mesoamerican deities, Quetzalcoatl. This mural is fascinating stuff for those interested in Mexican history. Khan Academy has a great page devoted to Diego Rivera, which I can highly recommend.
Over time Catrina lost her political context and some of her social meaning, although she remained a feature of the Day of the Dead festival. She has also evolved into a popular cosplay and Halloween costume, even with non-Hispanics. She is so popular you can find pages of her image (often labeled as sugar skull make-up) all over the web. I’m including a link to a simple make-up tutorial I found on YouTube. It is narrated in Spanish, but I think everyone can follow along.
You can also find endless ideas for capturing this monster’s look on Pinterest.
Catrina is a fun monster. She defies the sadness and grief of death with her flamboyant fashions and a joyous celebration of color. I can understand why her image has been embraced by people of all different faiths and cultures. She is walking death with style!