Today is El Dia de Los Muertos, the day of the dead. Every November 1st, I make time to reflect upon what that means. For me, El Dia de Los Muertos was a time for fun parties, pretty flowers, and a vague dedication to remembering my deceased loved ones. But this year, El Dia de Los Muertos has taken on a more poignant memory. Because of recent events in my personal life, I find myself contemplating the mystery and comfort I find in El Dia de Los Muertos and La Catrina, the symbol of the holiday.
For the uninitiated, El Die de Los Muertos is a vibrant, introspective holiday devoted to remembering the dead. Those who celebrate the holiday will tend to the graves of their deceased loved ones, cleaning the tombstones, arranging flowers and altars, and leaving food and small offerings. They do this to invite the spirits to visit so that the departed will hear the prayers of their living relatives.
While this sounds like it could be morbid and depressing, El Dia de Los Muertos is actually cheerful and uplifting. People are encouraged to remember the dead fondly by recounting happy and funny stories about them. This attitude carries over into the festival itself, which is often whimsically macabre and very enjoyable.
I grew up in San Antonio, Texas, where Mexican and Texan cultures have influenced each other for centuries. You couldn’t help being touched by the Mexican culture and heritage of San Antonio, not that my family or I ever wanted to avoid it! We love San Antonio just the way it is, diverse and remarkable and brimming with Mexican and Hispanic culture. One of my favorite things about living in San Antonio was how Halloween melted into Dia de Los Muertos. A few weeks before Halloween and Dia de Los Muertos, candied skulls and images of La Catrina were put out alongside the snicker bars and the paper ghosts.
Since I’ve grown up and moved away, I’ve lived in Austin and now in Houston. By virtue of being in Texas, both of these cities have a good deal of diversity and Hispanic culture, but they’re not the same. I miss San Antonio. And around this time of year, I really miss El Dia de Los Muertos.
Even though my family is full of gringos and I’m a super-duper white girl raised in a super white Episcopalian church, El Dia de Los Muertos was one of my favorite times of the year. I miss the celebrations in La Villita. I miss the intricate, delicate craftsmanship of candied skulls. In Spanish class, we had annual Dia de Los Muertos parties, where we told stories, played games, ate pan de muerto, and drank champurrado. Some years, my mother would have us make a little altar in our house so that we could joyfully remember our own dead.
And every year, La Catrina decorations were everywhere. It seems like everyone’s mom had a La Catrina figurine. La Catrina made her grand, elegant appearance every year, sweeping into homes and shops and public displays in the weeks before Halloween.
Growing up, Halloween and Dia de Los Muertos naturally went hand-in-hand. Halloween reveled in scary stuff, like monsters that might eat you, while Dia de Los Muertos softened the eeriness of dying. As a child, I admired Dia de Los Muertos for being unafraid of death. Halloween functions to confront death through the temporary artifice of scary costumes and horror movies; however, Dia de Los Muertos looks directly at death and embraces it for what it is—a natural, normal part of life.
Where Halloween made me terrified of ghosts, Dia de Los Muertos taught me that death could touch my life at any time and would eventually claim me. Setting aside a whole day to contemplate this truth, to reflect upon my deceased great-grandma or my dead bunny rabbit was profound. It was an immensely spiritual idea for me in my formative years.
Death stands tall, still, and proud, biding her time like a La Catrina figure waiting to be brought out of storage for her annual reign over the festivities.
I’ve watched how, in recent years, La Catrina has seen a considerable increase in popularity and visibility outside of Mexican communities. Each year, thousands of young women paint their faces with elaborate makeup, don flower crowns, and wear embroidered Mexican dresses.
Given my affinity for Dia de Los Muertos, I’ve met this latest trend with a mixture of excitement and curiosity. I remember when Cinco de Mayo wasn’t a national excuse to drink tequila and eat tacos. I remember when people outside of Texas thought Dia de Los Muertos was “just how Mexicans celebrate Halloween,” as if they weren’t two separate holidays.
What is La Catrina suddenly so popular? Is it because she is both sexy and scary? Enticing but a little repulsive? Alluring but disturbing? What is it about this seemingly contradictory female icon who embodies death and dying yet looks chic and beautiful?
For my own, personal way of celebrating El Dia de Los Muertos, I decided to do a little research on La Catrina, reflect on her history and meaning, and share my findings here.
As I mentioned, La Catrina is a very famous Mexican cultural figure. While the modern incarnation of La Catrina has more recent origins, she is not new to Mexican culture. Her earliest manifestation was as Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of the dead and Queen of the Underworld. Her most important role was to guard the bones of the dead and preside over the annual Aztec festivals honoring the dead. The legend says that:
“One of her foremost duties as the ruler of the dark realm is to guard the skeletal remains of extinct earlier races. In the past Mictecacihuatl failed in her duties and Xolotl, god of sickness and lightning, stole one of the sacred corpses of those who lived long before–which the gods of the sky then fashioned into living modern human beings. Now Mictecacihuatl must also guard the bones of dead humans, for she believes that our remains could be used by capricious sky gods to build an even more ruthless group of alien new beings.”
Mictecacihuatl appears as a woman with a skeleton body, a skirt of snakes, and exposed breasts. With her deathly visage, she even looks like La Catrina, don’t you think?
She was said to adore flowers, particularly the distinctive yellow flowers called cempasuchils, or Mexican marigolds, which were her sacred flower. They are known as flor de muertos and utilized in contemporary Dia de Los Muertos celebrations. Celebrants love to use them to adorn graves and altars.
Even though Dia de Los Muertos has roots in pagan religion, the celebration survived because it was co-opted by the Catholic Church. When the Spanish colonized Mexico, they brought Catholicism with them. As I wrote about in my History of Halloween post, the Catholic Church practiced religious syncretism as its influence spread across the globe. Mexico was no different, and the Spanish recognized some critical similarities between El Dia de Los Muertos and the Catholic All Saints and All Souls holy days. So they blended the two festivals as a way to foster Catholicism. And Dia de Los Muertos endured.
Around 1910, Mexican artist and cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada created the first modern version of what would become La Catrina. Posada created a series of lithograph prints depicting numerous Calaveras, or skeleton figures, to satirize social and political topics. One of his most famous Calaveras was a female figure, depicted with an absurdly frilly hat atop her skull. Posada used her to poke fun at Mexicans who were ashamed of their indigenous roots and who tried to hide their native heritage by dressing up in ridiculous European fashions.
Greater still, Posada’s art coincided with the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, who like many dictators, used his power and military might to consolidate wealth and influence in the hands of his few chosen elite. While some people contest his image as a power-hungry dictator, it’s hard to dispute the fact that the rest of Mexico suffered tremendously under his regime. With the Calaveras, Posada created cheap, widely available literature for the lower classes, to galvanize them against inequality and injustice.
Sadly, Posada died without knowing how important his Calaveras would become to Mexican national identity. Interestingly enough, legendary Mexican artist Diego Rivera greatly admired Posada and borrowed his female Calavera for his extraordinary mural, Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central (“Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park”). The mural is a visual history of Mexico and depicts many key figures, events, and symbols with great cultural and historical significance. The mural is visually and thematically complex, detailing many of the triumphs and conflicts of Mexican history. It focuses on three main periods in Mexico’s history: “The Conquest,” “The Porfirio Dictatorship,” and “The Revolution of 1910.”
Rivera positioned the Calavera in a prominent place within the mural and named her La Catrina. He also placed Posada and himself on either side of La Catrina, who holds their hands. It’s not a stretch to interpret Rivera as connecting himself to Posada in both artistic legacy and death, the great equalizer. While she is not in the exact center of the mural, she is painted as a focal point and essential part of the mural’s composition. La Catrina is a connection between the past and the present, a symbol of the Aztec origins of Mexican culture, and an emblem of bougie modernity. In the mural, she personifies both the Mexican comfort with death and capricious vanity. From her position in the foreground, close to the center, she contributes to and represents the complexities of Mexican national identity. It’s fascinating, remarkable, meaningful work of art.
As the years passed and both Rivera and Posada’s artistic legacy grew, La Catrina experienced a resurgence in popularity. Many folk artists began to use La Catrina in their own art. Sculptor Juan Torres is primarily credited with bringing La Catrina to folk art, as he created the first ceramic La Catrina in the early 1980s. Inspired by his lifelong interest in death, Torres sculpted thousands of Las Catrinas in a variety of poses with many different outfits and companions. He then hand-painted each of his pieces and transformed the figures into dynamic, versatile figures. Other artists imitated Torres and experimented with their own unique expressions of La Catrina, carving her from wood, molding her with paper-mâché, and using different materials to sculpt her.
Today, La Catrina figures are popular all over the world. While she still presides over El Dia de Los Muertos, she is no longer constricted to the holiday. She still dutifully represents Mexican culture, but she has evolved to reflect people from all walks of life.
La Catrina has become a sort of cultural springboard whereby artists can invoke her multi-faceted past and make their own artistic contributions. In turn, each artist who uses her image amplifies her cultural significance. It’s a beautiful, creative idea—La Catrina is a figure who belongs to all of Mexico, but no one person owns her. She appeals to the universal human fascination with death as she illustrates the unique history and culture of Mexico. And now, with her visage quickly becoming a Halloween costume mainstay, she has reached new audiences. I hope her prominence will help educate others about Mexico’s history and spread awareness of all their culture has to offer.
As the curator of San Francisco’s Mexican Museum David de La Torre said “Death brings this neutralizing force; everyone is equal in the end. Sometimes people have to be reminded.”