You Don’t Want To Cross Catrina

BY: ALE BORBOLLA

I am sure that by know you are very familiar with the Catrina. That fancy skeleton lady ever-present in Mexican folklore and much more during November, close to the day of the dead, or Día de Muertos. But must never, ever, be confused with sugar skulls. Our relationship with death is very different from northern cultures, and I dare say very different from pretty much any other culture. We celebrate and embrace death like no other. The Catrina was created by a cartoon artist named José Guadalupe Posada, famous for folk, sociopolitical illustrations. Posada illustrated the beliefs and everyday lives of the popular groups, generally the lower-income families. He criticized the government and the exploitation of the people. Unfortunately, he was not recognized as an illustrator until Diego Rivera (the guy on the 500-peso bill) painted Posada’s Catrina on a mural after his death.

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Catrina, however, was not his first skeleton; that was his “thing” to portray everyday life with a hint of death. Posada also illustrated revolutionary skeletons on horses, riding bikes, at typical parties and such. La Catrina was originally called “La Calavera garbanzera” which literally translates to the skeleton of the chickpea harvester. In reality, “garbanzera” referred to the people who sold garbanzo (chickpeas) and pretended to be rich and tried to hide their indigenous roots.

This group of merchants pretended to have a European lifestyle. The word “Catrín” means a man who is well dressed, in a higher class, with fine clothes and lots money. It was Diego Rivera who named her Catrina, in his 1947 mural called “sueño de una tarde dominical en la alameda central” -dream of a Sunday afternoon in the central park. Poetry was written for Catrina, where she is basically a well-dressed grim reaper, and she will take you with her in laughs or with a strike to the knee.

It is very typical to find Catrinas in any presentation, from papier mâché to wood, metal, jewelry and printed on shirts. Some businesses even have the nerve to use it in their publicity or as their logo. The original Catrina (even before Rivera) did not have clothes. She only wore a fancy hat with two ostrich feathers, symbolizing also the need to feign a higher class. A woman who was skinny to the bones, no clothes but a fancy French hat.

All the odes that are dedicated to Catrina are meant to have a little sarcasm, a little spice, some Mexican slang, rhyme and color. Usually, kids at school write her “calaveritas” mocking some kind of authority, either teachers, principals or peers. Grownups write them also, many about the current president or whatever theme is relevant. Some Mexicans believe that if during the day of the dead celebration, the family comes up with good calaveritas and makes Catrina laugh, she will not take any of the present family members that year; but if someone crosses her, it’s their Deathwish.