La Calavera Catrina, The Icon of Dia de los Muertos

Dia de los Muertos (Day of The Dead) is a Latin American holiday that focuses on remembering those who’ve passed. It occurs near All Saints Day, a Christian festival that honors all saints and is strongly associated with Mexican culture. The holiday occurs on October 31, November 1, and 2, and is widely celebrated in the West. Similar to America’s Halloween, the holiday has garnered a reputation for its eye-catching material culture, with sugar skulls and Mexican Marigolds. One aspect that is always seen during the holiday is the Dia de los Muertos icon, La Calavera Catrina.

La Calavera Catrina

La Calavera Catrina (The Dressy Skeleton) is a skeleton caricature dressed in early 1900’s French female dress. The costume consists of a wide brim hat known as a mantilla with a tight, scoop necked and bell-shaped Edwardian gown. Although a skeleton, the figure of La Calavera Catrina mimics the covered European dress of the 18th century, but in brighter hues that are typical of Mexican cultural dress.

The origins of La Calavera Catrina can be traced to cartoon illustrator José Guadalupe Posada in 1912. According to Posada, she is a satirical figure of Mexicans who wore European clothing to forgo their Central American heritage. The high-class look paired with a skeleton was also seen as an equalizer, meaning that death comes no matter one’s income. This idea of a feminine presence of death can be traced hundreds of years before Posada’s image and may have come from the Aztec Queen Mictecacihuatl, who rules the underworld. Although she is now referred to as La Catrina, it was artist Diego Rivera who gave the figure her famous moniker.

Culture As A Halloween Costume?

More modern celebrators will recognize the figure through a variety of mediums, ranging from Calavera (skeleton) face makeup, tattoos, and heavily flowered headbands. These variations have also become a favorite Halloween costume in the United States, but to some, they are merely cultural appropriations. Multiple websites and blogs have posted articles questioning the appropriateness of replicating images from a sacred holiday that honors death for a fun costume. As with other cultural images and dress, an eye-catching outfit may mean more than one thinks.

For more on Dia de los Muertos, visit the National Museum of Mexican Art’s annual exhibit.


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