Mexico’s famous Catrina and her legend
During the month of October you can’t help but see her…everywhere. Her skeleton is decorated in many shapes and sizes and colors and forms, but there’s no mistaking who she is. The famous skinny female skeleton you see in shops and along streets all around Mexico are fondly referred to as La Catrina.
Catrina dolls have become hugely popular over the years and are a deeply imbedded part of Mexico’s history. You see, Catrina is not merely a figurine, nor is she a ghostly site to mimic only for Halloween. The truth is, Catrina once existed.
Legend has it that Catrina, the famous female skeleton of Mexico, was once a real person. Folklore says that La Catrina was once a living woman known for her selfishness. In life, she was a greedy rich woman who did nothing to help the poor. Catrina was often seen dressed in ornate European styles, imitating the French by wearing a lot of makeup to make her skin appear whiter.
La Calavera Catrina translates into Dapper Skeleton or Elegant Skull and is actually a zinc etching by the famous Mexican printmaker, cartoon illustrator and lithographer, José Guadalupe Posada.
In his original 1910 etching of La Catrina, Posada describes a person who was ashamed of their Indian origins and dressed imitating the French style while wearing a lot of makeup to make their skin look whiter. This description also ties to the original name garbancera, which became a nickname given to people of indigenous ancestry who imitated European style and denied their own cultural heritage.
The famous female skeleton is always seen dressed only in a hat befitting the upper class outfit of a European of her time. Her chapeau en attende is related to French and European styles of the early 20th century. She is offered as a satirical portrait of those Mexican natives who, Posada felt, were aspiring to adopt European aristocratic traditions in the pre-revolutionary era.
While the original work by Posada introduced the character, the popularity of La Calavera Catrina, as well as her name, is derived from a work by artist Diego Rivera in his 1948 work Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday afternoon along Central Alameda).
Rivera took inspiration from the original etching and gave Calavera a body as well as more of an identity in her elegant outfit. The intent was to show the tradition of welcoming and comfort Mexicans have with death heeding back to the heritage of the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl.
Catrina has come to symbolize not only El Día de los Muertos and the Mexican willingness to laugh at death itself, but also refer to rich people that, “Death brings this neutralizing force; everyone is equal in the end. Sometimes people have to be reminded of that.”
While Catrina does not have a direct link to the country’s traditional Day of the Dead celebrations at the beginning of November, she is a popular choice Halloween costume not to imitate, but to mock.