The elegant, even sexy, “Catrina Skull” has become a festive symbol of El Dia de los Muertos as well as a very popular Halloween costume – but where does it come from?
La Catrina or Katrina (people spell it both ways) was not Latin America’s first grand lady of the afterlife. This honor belongs to Mictēcacihuātl – the queen of the Aztec underworld of Chicunamictlan. Her role was to watch over the bones of the dead, and her presence was front-and-center during any recognition of those who had passed on.
Where had those souls passed to, you might ask? The belief amongst the Mesoamericans was that the dead make a journey that descends nine levels to the depths of Chicunamictlan. The ancients’ view of death was not a mournful one: they saw it as a part of the cycle of life, and celebrated the departed by leaving offerings on makeshift altars, or ofrendas, that would assist them in their onward trials.
These ofrendas continue to be associated with The Day of the Dead, which, over centuries has also absorbed pagan and Catholic celebration customs – including the dates of the festival straddling both All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day. But the defining image of the modern festival would come later, as recently as 1910, by the Mexican illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada. Posada, who was born in Mexico in 1852, was known for his cartoonish lithographs to satirically illustrate political and societal issues; his work was frequently published in the Mexican press.
What drew these illustrations together and made Posada’s fame particularly distinctive was the sketches’ central motif: Posada’s figures, regardless of occupation, class or status, were represented with skulls for faces. These skull caricatures, or calaveras, would depict anything from current events and figures, to historical ones.
The reduction of every person to bones, no matter the time, place, or class gave Posada’s images a sense of equality; after all, we’re all doomed to the same fate.
Posada’s original sketch of La Calavera Catrina was made around 1910. It was designed to be a satire referencing the high-society European obsessions of leader Porfirio Diaz, whose corruption led to the Mexican Revolution of 1911, and the toppling of his regime. The original name of the sketch reflected this cultural appropriation adopted by certain members of Mexican society: La Calavera Garbancera, with some sources referring to the latter word as slang for a woman who renounces her Mexican culture and adopts European aesthetics. The later christening would also come from slang, with the word ‘catrin’ or ‘catrina‘ often used to refer to a well-dressed man or woman.
Photo by Efra Gomez. MUA is Erika Magallanes. Model is Denise Dorado. Styling by Albert Acosta.