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Mexican Catrina. A celebration of life

“Calaca’s taken him”, is a Mexican expression that is used when someone dies. Also known as ‘Catrina’, this figure in high heels and a hat is the star of thousands of celebrations throughout the length and breadth of the country in November. We look at this character. 

On November 1 and 2, Mexico celebrates what is called: ‘The Day of the Dead’. Indigenous and Spanish traditions come together in a series of events where people pay tribute, pray, sing, cry, laugh and, above all, recall and celebrate the lives of those who are no longer here. October 31, the day known internationally as Halloween, is All Saints Eve in Mexico. From that day, altars are adorned with flowers, food and colour, in an open invitation to loved ones to visit the dead.

mex 2

On November 2, celebrations move to the cemetery and graves are decorated with flowers and everything the deceased used to like: tequila, mezcal, pulque, atole, nuts, candies, colored paper, incense, photos, candles, and lots of Catrinas. Also important is the famous ‘dead man’s bread’, which is only baked at this time of year. This sweet bread is decorated with bones and Catrinas, and almost always has a weeping bread ‘tear’ depicting the goddess Chimalma, who cries for the living.  The bones and dead man’s bread are arranged in circles, representing the life circle.
All these objects symbolize the opening-up of communication channels between the past, the present and the future. The dead are believed to come and eat the spiritual essence of the offerings. Further beliefs include objects connected with the Day of the Dead bringing good luck, and that those who have gone away come back, laugh and cry. Mexico parties and Catrinas are the first to celebrate. People dress-up, put make up on, bring out their musical instruments, sing and dance, all to represent the good time that comes after death. Catrinas can be made of clay, wood, leather, metal, seeds, chocolate or sugar. The important thing is that they are elegant, and always wear a good hat.

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November 1 – All Fool’s, or The Little Angels Day –  is for children, whereas adults take centre stage the day after, which is the official Day of the Dead. Among the most important tributes paid to the deceased  are offerings adorned with marigolds which are believed to have the power to attract souls, and skulls made of sugar, illustrating the poetic way in which Mexican culture sees death, with humour and hope.

The life of the Mexicans

The origin of these celebrations is obscure, although they are believed to come from an ancient Aztec festival to Mictecacihuatl, goddess of the dead, queen of the underworld and guardian of the deceased. The festivities are said to be over 3,000 years old, although they have evolved as new customs and images have been adopted. The skulls, for example, have their origin in the trophies of Aztec and Mayan warriors, which were much sought after as symbols of death and rebirth.

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In 1913, the famous Mexican printmaker, cartoon illustrator and lithographer, José Guadalupe Posada made a metal engraving of Catrina. The artist wanted to interpreted  the life and social attitudes of the Mexican people; he began to use Mexico’s traditional Day of the Dead celebration as his theme. He would stage scenes with skeletons in working class barrios, in suburban communities and in the houses of the elite class. Riding on bicycles and garbed in the latest finery, Posada’s skeletons became metaphors for the corrupt elitist class, and La Catrina came to life. The word ‘catrina’ is the feminine form of the word ‘catrín’, which means a ‘dandy’, or one who strives to imitate an aristocratic lifestyle even though many come from middle-class backgrounds. ‘Catrin’ is slang for elegant or well dressed and it refers to rich people.

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In 1948 Diego Rivera, made the mural “Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda” (dream of a Sunday afternoon in Alameda Park). In the famous mural, Rivera represented 400 years of Mexican history. He named the Garbancera (the beaner), La Catrina.
Today, Catrina is the great Mexican character, well known and adored by all, especially in November every year.

Marcella Echavarria

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