The celebrated CATRINAS of Mexico are (as time goes), relatively new to the world of Mexican folk art. The popularity of this art form came into existence after the renown Mexican mural artist, Diego Rivera, husband to Frida Kahlo, poltical activist and self-proclaimed atheist, created and painted “Sueno de una tarde dominical en La Alameda Central” (Dream of a Sunday afternoon along central Alameda) in 1947. This fifty foot mural painted in Mexico City was his take on the political climate at the time and was filled with political satire. In the mural, Rivera created a full body skeleton dressed in the extravagant European style of past decades, including a lavishly embellished, wide-brimmed hat, again reminiscent of the upper European style, just prior to the Mexican Revolution.
However, Rivera did not create the original skull of his full skeletal image. Well-known Mexican engraver, Jose Guadalupe Posada, first did an etching of a skull under a similar ornately embellished wide-brimmed hat, popularized in the early 1900’s by the European elite. Posada’s intention was to show contrast between the upper and lower classes and hint at the truth, that in death, all are equal…an outlandish thought to the upper crust. At this time, just prior to the Mexican Revolution, beginning in 1910, the indigenous people of Mexico, ashamed of their own heritage, fought hard to emulate the rich upper class lifestyle of the Europeans. Posada’s hat adorned skull, dubbed LA CALAVERA GARBARCERA (garbarcera being the nickname given to those of Mexican heritage that chose to imitate the lifestyle of the wealthy Europeans) was a successful effort to bring this knowledge to the masses.
Though it was Posada who popularized LA CALAVERA to the public through his satirical cartoons and writings, the image was originally the brainchild of Manuel Manilla, himself a noted engraver, in the late 1800’s. Manilla’s image was a play off the Aztec goddess, MICTECACIHUATL, said to be the “keeper of the bones." Now, years later, Diego Rivera included the combination of these suggestions into his now famous mural, as a successful attempt to show how the Mexican culture celebrates, embraces and even mocks the reality of death. Few cultures celebrate death with the gusto found in the Mexican culture. Death is not feared, but treated with respect and routinely celebrated at Mexico’s annual DAY OF THE DEAD celebrations on November 1st-2nd. Today at the extravagant celebrations, the images of LA CATRINA (so named by Rivera) are alive and well in the homes, streets and cemeteries of the Mexican culture.
But it wasn’t until 1982 when Juan Torres created a clay LA CATRINA, did the image become the Mexican folk art icon of today. In today’s Mexico, LA CATRINA is often escorted by her male counterpart, CATRIN (which is actually slang for a wealthy well-dressed man). CATRINAS and CATRINS are now readily available for the public’s collecting indulgence or in some cases for museum exhibition. They are created from clay, ceramic, paper mache or wood and then adorned with the bold, bright colors and attention to detail that is associated with the Mexican folk art of today.
Many creators have taken a bit of artistic license, if not a touch of comic relief with their unique takes and extravagant embellishments of these icons. On Isla, the LA CATRINA store, nestled on Hidalgo amidst numerous souvenir shops, cannot be missed, even with the absence of signage. Pablo, owner and artist, lovingly creates each piece with a story to tell. His store has an endless variety of choices from the surgeon and his nurse, to the well adorned vaquero and even the loving bride and groom (now that’s a wedding gift to write home about)! Each of Pablo’s original designs are painstakingly painted, as he greets each customer or passerby. It is not difficult to understand why Pablo takes such great pride in his creations and the celebration of the love of this art form, collected and loved by so many. Thank you Pablo for your genuine dedication to this Mexican icon and art form, and for carrying on a much loved Mexican tradition. - E