Catrina: The Dead Wear Prada


“Let’s go in here,” I said leading the friends who had come to visit me into a candy store in Guanajuato’s center.  There were two reasons for doing this.  First, it’s a candy store- as in free samples.  Second, it’s an opportunity to get familiar with one of Mexico’s iconic images – La Catrina.

After wandering through the first floor of the store, nibbling on soft, fruit flavored treats and candied nuts, we went upstairs.  Bottles of syrups, liquors and vanilla lined the shelves of the room we entered.  But passing through an archway we found ourselves in another world, surrounded by ceramic statues of elegantly dressed women who happen to have skulls instead of faces.  This is Catrina and death has never been so well dressed.

José Guadalupe Posada’s Catrina

The image originated from a block print made by José Guadalupe Posada in 1910. Posada’s prints, and especially his sense of satire were to have an immeasurable influence on Mexican art.

Posada’s Catrina. Photo by Gobierno Aguascalientes.

The image was published at the start of the Mexican Revolution and Catrina, therefore carries two meanings.  Familiar, comfortable in her element and always having a good time, she is definitely the standard bearer for the Mexican attitude towards death.  However, being an upper crust corpse, she is also a statement about class.  No matter how rich and well-to-do you are, you’re still going to die.  Death is the ultimate equalizer.

But who is having the last laugh? Catrina seems to say, “I may have to die, but I’m still going to look good.”

Icon of Mexican Folk Art

Our guide led us into a warehouse-like building in the small village of Capula in Michoacan.  Inside the hot dusty room, people sat at irregular wooden tables painting clay figurines of the sexiest skeleton you’ll ever see. Ubiquitous in Mexican popular art, Catrina is big business.  Sometimes she flies solo and at other times she is with a male partner – the Catrín. The couple may be dancing, or maybe dressed as a bride and groom.  She usually wears a fancy hat, but sometimes just a beehive hairdo. Her sexy dresses reveal a lot of bust (ribs) and sometimes a protruding leg.  Along with the three dimensional figures made of clay, ceramic or  paper maché, Catrina’s image may be found decorating plates, tiles and shopping bags.

Collection of Catrinas

Our own Catrina collection started by accident.  I fell in love with a figurine I saw in a small market in Patzcuaro.  She wore a long red dress, slit at the leg.  Her hair was in an up-do and something about her demeanor clearly spoke of a middle-aged woman who doesn’t give a shit about what anyone thinks.  Sadly, she was beyond my budget at the moment.  So my friend took a photo of her, had it framed and sent in to me. Once that photo was hung on the wall, she seemed to have a magical power to draw in more images of herself.  Our collection continues to grow.

Published in Culture and People, Mexico

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Seasoned traveler, avid reader, over-eater, clumsy but determined hiker and wannabe Spanish-speaker.

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