Catharine Hughes illuminates the image of and tradition behind La Calavera Catrina
Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a celebration that dates back thousands of years to the Aztec, Toltec and Nahua people. It is, therefore, important to dispel the belief that Día de Muertos is the same as Halloween. Whilst Halloween treats death as a finality which we should fear, the cultures which celebrate Día de Muertos are celebrating death. Through this festival people aim to show their love and respect for deceased family members that have moved on to another part of life’s continuum, and death is not feared or shown in a morbid light.
The calavera (skull) has always been a prominent image for this festival, a representation of human mortality. The first time that it appeared in its personified, feminine form was 1913. Mexican political cartoonist José Guadalope Posada created the etching to accompany a piece in the paper for el Día de Muertos.
Posada dressed his personification of death in French clothing and named her Garbancra, a social comment on the rich of indigenous ancestry who imitated European culture and denied their own.
Around three decades later Diego Rivera depicted the stylised skeletal figure in his grandiose mural (51ft x 15ft) Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park. It was Rivera who baptised her Catrina, yet another reference to the rich. The reasoning for both artists emphasising the wealth of this figure goes back to a quote from Posada, ‘Todos somos calaveras’ (we are all skeletons). That is to say, we are all equal, underneath our fabricated guises we are all the same, death will come to all of us, even the rich. Death is a neutralising force.
Rivera’s vast mural depicts hundreds of characters from 400 years of Mexican history as they gather together for a stroll. The work has a surreal air to it, the colourful balloons and the well-dressed guests juxtapose the commotion and sinister confrontation that is embedded throughout.
The centre of the painting is particularly striking. The viewer looks directly into the (lack of) eyes of the Calavera Catrina, the original artist, Posada, is on her left, and to her right she is holding hands with a child version of the artist Rivera. Above Rivera is his wife, Frida Kahlo, holding a yin-yang symbol.
Nowadays revelers of the festival paint their face in the style of the Catrina as a means of mocking death, symbolising their willingness to laugh at death itself, telling death that they are not afraid.
In recent years, tensions have risen due to the appropriation of this tradition by those using the imagery for Halloween, oblivious to its history or significance. This appropriation can be particularly distasteful due to the polarised differences in the holidays. Día de Muertos is a celebration of death and human life, whereas in the context of Halloween, death is violently dehumanised.
People of Hispanic culture have spoken out regarding their feelings on this issue time and time again. Aya de Leon wrote a powerful piece about the colonisation of the indigenous holiday.
“You arrived at the Día De Los Muertos ceremony shipwrecked, a refugee from a culture that suppresses grief, hides death, banishes it, celebrates it only in the most morbid ways … You arrived at El Día De Los Muertos like a Pilgrim, starving, unequal to survival in the land of grief, and the indigenous ceremonies took you in and made a place for you at the table … Like the Pilgrims, you have begun to take over, to gentrify and colonise this holiday for yourselves, but with zero Latin[o] artists participating, involved, consulted, paid, recognised, acknowledged, prayed with”.
What must be taken away from this is that wanting to be a part of another culture’s celebrations is perfectly acceptable when done respectfully. But it is unacceptable and insensitive to take the parts of a culture that suit you and discard the rest. Traditions are not something to tokenise; this is a culture, not a costume.
Featured image credit: The Yutacan Times