La Catrina and Día de los Muertos

Image of La Catrina Dia de los Muertos

Día de los Muertos - What does La Catrina represent?

Oh my…. How scary, how beautiful, how very Día de los Muertos!

If you’re familiar at all with Día de los Muertos, you’ve probably seen this image before (or something similar). 

This skull-style face painting has been used for decades in conjunction with Día de los Muertos. But where did it come from?

Let’s go back to 1910, right before the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution, and the removal of Porfirio Diaz from power. 

José Guadalupe Posada and La Catrina

La Calavera Garbancera, (the original name for La Catrina) was a moniker given by the working class and poor to refer to well-to-do Mexicans who glorified European culture and trends while holding their native heritage in contempt.

Calavera translates to skull. Garbancero (from garbanzo) means chickpea. More significantly, it was a slang word used pejoratively for a person who denied his indigenous blood and pretended to be European.

Such attitudes were particularly evident in the policies and affectations of then leader, Porifirio Díaz, who (along with his advisors – los Cientificos) believed the indigenous to be backwards and an impediment to development and progress in Mexico. Thus racism, exploitation and class differences simmered and festered. (This would eventually explode into the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution)

During those times, Mexican illustrator, José Guadalupe Posada, was known for his political and societal commentaries through satirical illustrations. He created cartoonish lithographs and engravings. These drawings covered both historical and current affairs, fictional and non-fictional characters, and even songs.

Posada’s choice of caricature was very intentional in a society where far less than fifty percent of the populace was literate. These illustrated stories were printed on brightly-cloured papers and sold on the streets, at festivals and in markets. Through pictures and only a few words, Posada was able to ensure coverage of complex topics (corruption, inequality and injustice) reached the masses. 

His work was particularly noticeable because he frequently used calaveras to represent the faces of his subjects (with no regard to their occupation or class). A central message to come out of this was: despite the outer trappings, we are all the same underneath; and we’re all headed in the same ultimate direction – death.

What does la catrina represent dia de los muertos
The original cartoon of La Calavera Catrina by José Guadalupe Posada.

It is believed La Catrina Calavera first appeared in print in 1912 (some say 1911). The skeleton is presented only from the chest upwards and the calavera is adorned by an elaborate women’s hat (in European fashion, of course)!

So what does La Catrina represent here? Some historians say she represents the corruption of the politicians and the wealthy; and she shows how they enriched themselves off of the blood, bones and hard work of the poorer masses.

Diego Rivera and La Catrina

While Posada introduced Mexico to La Catrina Calavera, it was Diego Rivera who made her famous. In his acclaimed, 51-foot-long, paintingDream of a Sunday afternoon along Central Alameda” (Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central), Rivera includes and elaborates on the idea. His Catrina is presented in full regalia, including an elegant full-length gown and fancy feathers. In this painting which represents around 500 years of Mexican history, Rivera includes prominent figures of the country’s past and (then) present. La Catrina is positioned between an image of Posada, himself (as a child) and his wife, Frida Kahlo. 

Catrin was the term used for an elegant and well-dressed man – also a ‘dandy’. However, there was a negative association too as someone who chose the European (or American) fashions and ways of life over local. Catrín was even used to show how members of the Mexican aristocracy were out of touch with the Mexican reality. 

Diego Rivera named Posada’s skeleton in the huge hat: La Catrina.

La Catrina and Día de los Muertos

It is not surprising that La Catrina came to be associated with Día de los Muertos. There are quite a few parallels from the beautifully decorated sugar skulls (calaveritas), to the classy sartorial choices of festival goers and even the tradition of face painting. Added to that, remember modern Día de los Muertos festivities come from the Aztec traditions. The queen of the Aztec underworld is Mictēcacihuātl, another powerful female figure. 

How to create the Catrina mask

Now you know the history of La Catrina, let’s get to the fun part! How do you recreate this design for yourself?

Firstly, I may love to look at these pictures and I don’t mind a little makeup for myself. However, I have zero skills with el maquillaje (makeup) so I turned to the vlogger experts to find a couple video tutorials for you!

What do you need?

According to this article by Sandos, you will need:

  • Water-based makeup: white, black, and at least two or three bright colors
  • Black eyeliner (pencil or gel)
  • Eyelash adhesive
  • Sequins (one or two colors)
  • 2 small round make-up brushes
  • 1 flat brush
  • 1 medium wide-flat brush
  • 1 large wide-flat brush
  • Wet wipes, to clean brushes and correct mistakes

Here are two video tutorials

La Catrina: The Finished Product

Check out these delightful images from Unsplash courtesy:

  1. Bruno Emmanuelle
  2. Daniel Lloyd
  3. Fer Gomez
  4. Joackim Weiler

Finally, here are some gorgeous (and sweet) photos from Pixabay courtesy:

  1. Christian Moreno
  2. Manuel Larrañaga
  3. David Ortega
  4. Darvin Santos

Additional Reading

National Geographic: La Catrina – The dark history of Day of the Dead’s immortal icon

Daily Art Magazine: La Calavera Catrina. A Skeleton Lady

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