The colorful and elegant skull has become a festive symbol of Dia de los Muertos. But its original creation had a meaning that went beyond the inevitability of death. The Catrina Calavera is an omnipresent image during the Day of the Dead. She is a character of popular culture in Mexico and is part of the trinity: Santa Muerte, Day of the Dead, La Catrina. It is found in costumes, food, paintings and dolls, among other things. If you’re totally into the Day of the Dead vibes, we invite you to get our best silver ring with a Mexican skull.
Everywhere you look in the streets during the Day of the Dead celebrations in Latin America, a familiar face will come to you. A face that juxtaposes the macabre and the elegant. You will find it in the face paint of the children, in the elaborate costumes of the women, in the “bread of the dead” of the festival or in every store window selling souvenirs and emblems of this popular festival with a unique atmosphere.
This face has a well-defined appearance: a skull, wearing an elegant embroidered hat that resplendent with flowers. This is La Calavera Catrina (the “elegant skull”), often simply La Catrina. And as festive as it may seem, La Catrina’s presence in Mexican Day of the Dead mythology is a much deeper statement of mortality, fate and social class divisions.
1) The Lady of the Dead
La Catrina was not the first great lady of the afterlife in Latin America. That honor belongs to Mictēcacihuātl, the Aztec underworld queen of Chicunamictlan. Her role was to watch over the bones of the dead and her presence was central to any recognition of those who had passed on.
This is an illustration of the Aztec goddess Mictēcacihuātl, who is referred to in the Codex Borgia manuscript, a Mesoamerican cult manual believed to have been written before the Spanish conquest.
And where had all the departed souls gone? The belief of the Mesoamericans was that the dead take a journey down nine levels to the depths of Chicunamictlan. The vision of the ancients regarding death was not gloomy or taboo. They considered it part of the cycle of life and celebrated the deceased by leaving offerings on makeshift altars, or “ofrendas”, that would help them in their later trials.
These ofrendas continue to be associated with the Day of the Dead, which has also absorbed over the centuries the customs of pagan and Catholic celebrations. We can consider, for example, the dates of these celebrations that coincide with the feast of All Saints and the Feast of the Dead, respectively on November 1 and 2. But the defining image of the modern holiday appeared much later, and comes from an unexpected source.
2) Origins of a Mexican Icon
The skeleton with the hat that we see today was created in the early 1900s by the artist José Guadalupe Posada. Posada was a controversial and politically committed cartoonist. He was popular with the people and drew and carved skeleton skulls (“calaveras”) in a satirical way to remind people that they would all die eventually.
It is said that he drew the female skeleton looking like a dandy with a fancy feathered hat because some Mexicans aspired to look rich and aristocratic like the Europeans of the time. A satirical drawing to remind people to be themselves and stop trying to be someone or something they were not. 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, we’re all going to end up being skeletons. This was Posada’s message, with his many caricatures of cavaleras sketched in various daily activities. One of his most popular sayings was “Death is democratic“. Simple, but so true!
Diego Rivera, famous artist and husband of Frida Kahlo, immortalized La Catrina in one of his murals depicting 400 years of Mexican history. The mural, “Dreams of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park,” was painted in 1942 and features several important Mexican figures. La Catrina is highlighted in this 50-foot mural. He painted a self-portrait of himself as a child holding hands with her in the front row. Rivera painted her in sophisticated clothing and an extravagant hat with feathers, creating the look for which she is now famous. The mural can be seen at the Diego Rivera Mural Museum in Mexico City. It is definitely worth a visit if you are in Mexico City!
From there, La Catrina has become a strong symbol for the many activities and celebrations of the Day of the Dead. Women dress and put on makeup in elegant outfits that evoke the famous symbolic skeleton. The celebrations take place in the cemeteries (“panteóns”) where the atmosphere is jovial. There, people joyfully commemorate their departed loved ones, offering them flowers and some of their favorite foods and drinks during their lifetime.
La Catrina is a popular tourist fascination and can be found in the form of wooden, clay or papier-mâché statues in many local stores 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 of their stay in Mexico. There is no doubt about its identity, La Catrina is 100% Mexican! She seduced us, so we couldn’t help but propose the Calavera T-Shirt.
The Lady of the Dead is a strong visual image that represents the way Mexicans see death and the afterlife. Different cultures have different traditions when it comes to death and how they deal with it individually or as a family.
Mexico has a unique view of this phenomenon of life and prefers to view it with a positive and passionate approach. This does not mean that they do not mourn and regret a deceased loved one. What it does mean is that they choose to celebrate the life and memories that the person created while they were with them instead of mourning the idea that they are gone forever.
By planning your next trip to Mexico during Día de los Muertos, you will certainly get a good picture of the Mexican people and their perception of life and existence.
La Catrina is about living your true nature and not pretending to be someone you are not. No matter what you look like or where you come from, you will end up being reduced to a skeleton like everyone else!
3) The Calavera Catrina : Drawing by José Posada and later Diego Rivera
The original sketch of Posada’s La Calavera Catrina was made around 1910. It was conceived as a satire referring to the obsessions of the European high society of military leader Porfirio Diaz. His corruption led to the Mexican revolution of 1911, and the overthrow of his regime. The original name of the sketch reflected this cultural appropriation adopted by some members of Mexican society: the Calavera Garbancera. Some sources refer to the latter word as slang for a woman who renounces her Mexican culture and adopts the European aesthetic. The later name would also come from slang, as the word “catrin” or “catrina” was often used to refer to a well-dressed man or woman, or “dandy”.
The original comic strip of La Calavera Catrina, by the Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada. It is believed to have been drawn around 1910, as the Mexican revolution was gaining momentum.
The image was later turned into a mural in Mexico City by Diego Rivera, who depicted an essential “La Catrina” in an ostentatious long dress. This La Catrina held the hands of Posada, its original inventor, and also Rivera himself as a child, as Riviera’s wife, the artist Frida Kahlo, looked on. The mural Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the center of Alameda became a cultural treasure and further amplified the image of La Catrina in the national consciousness.
This mural by Diego Rivera, depicts the greatest moments and events in Mexican history.
4) Popular Character of “Dia de los Muertos
The adoption of La Catrina as the emblem of the Day of the Dead today takes many forms. There are sugar skulls in every store window, makeup and dresses displayed by festival goers around the world, men and women, Catrin and Catrina. In many ways, she connects the eras and their interpretation of death. Her elegant dress suggests celebration. Her unmistakable smile, reminds us that there may be comfort in accepting mortality, and that the dead should be remembered, not feared. Whoever you are, we all have the same fate. And finally, this image would help to nod to this culture’s oldest beliefs, that the guardian of what comes after life takes a decidedly female form.
Interested in Mexican folklore? Then check out our best Mexican skulls, Calaveras, Santa Muerte, and more ! If you liked this article, don’t hesitate to check out all the other articles about Gods of Death ! You’ll tell us about it!