Wednesday, November 9, 2011

La Catrina, Style Icon

Dream of a Sunday in Alameda Park, by Diego Rivera, 1948. Rivera is holding hands with La Catrina. 

Dia de los Muertos, a Mexican celebration on All Souls' Day, November 2nd, pulls at the heart and soul. It's when we the living prepare a welcome for our deceased loved ones and reflect on our own mortality. On this night the spirits are thought to return to enjoy the pleasures they once knew on earth. There is a serious, somber side to Day of the Dead, but parallel to that is a lighthearted celebration where observants dress up as various types of skeletons to play with the idea of death. It's a recognition and acknowledgment that life and death exist side-by-side.

Jose Guadalupe Posada's La Catrina

Wearing an elegant long gown and an elaborately feathered hat, La Catrina is the dressy female skeleton, the bien vestida, who makes an appearance every Dia de los Muertos. Jose Guadalupe Posada created her to represent the rich folk in his political satirical cartoons in the late 1800's. She's a humorous reminder that everyone, rich or poor, is equal in the end.

My friend Jennifer and I dressed in our D.O.D. finery.

I celebrated Day of the Dead for the first time in 1990 when I attended the annual procession in San Francisco's Mission district on a chilly fall night. When my friends and I arrived at the corner of 24th Street and Bryant, we found a couple hundred people mingling on the street and sidewalk. Many people had their faces painted chalk white with black paint recessing their eyes and cheekbones to resemble skulls. Each person carried a lit candle and some touchingly carried a photo of a lost loved one.

We walked slowly with the crowd down narrow heavily muraled Balmy Alley. Skeletoned drummers played a soulful beat with some saxophones making it lively. At the end of the alley, someone had fashioned a giant arch decorated with colorful paper flowers. Hanging from the arch was a papier-mache skeleton with legs spread wide giving birth to a baby skeleton. The image was shocking, playful and potent. Death begets life. It  was a powerful reminder of the cycle of nature. The evening was mysterious, magical and exciting.

I was naturally drawn to the stylish La Catrina and the next November I created my own version of her, staying up till 3 am completely engrossed in the sewing, painting and feathering. I was also inspired to create an altar in my home to display remembrances of my ancestors. On the night of D.O.D., I invited friends to bring photos and mementos of their dead loved ones to add to the altar. It was a natural process for guests to share stories of loss and it became a profound and moving experience. We have had this celebration many times since. It's a rich mixture of music, food, drink and an audience for memories that often have no other outlet.

Every year my friend Karen and I attend the procession, wearing a new version of La Catrina and photographing the other Catrinas. The procession this year was the largest ever. My guess is there was about four thousand attendees. There was a great sense of camaraderie as we commented admiringly on each other's costumes or sympathetically as we were told the stories behind the photos they held.

Here are a few of the fashionable Catrinas from over the years. Viva La Catrina!

"To the inhabitants of New York, Paris, or London death is a word that is never uttered because it burns the lips. The Mexican, on the other hand, frequents it, mocks it, caresses it, sleeps with it, entertains it; it is one of his favorite playthings and his most enduring love. It is true that in his attitude there is perhaps the same fear that others also have, but at least he does not hide this fear nor does he hide death."
--from Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz


  1. I love this post. This is a holiday/ritual I knew nothing about, but I can see its powerful appeal. Was that quote from Labyrinth of Solitude?

  2. A most moving post that articulates beautifully the poignancy of Dia de los Muertos, in words as well as in pictures.

  3. This day has always been mysterious for me and I have been shy about participating. Now I feel that you have shed some light on it and I'm looking forward to attending the SF gathering next year.

  4. Very moving post, Lesa. So much meaning underneath the style.

  5. Lesa, this is a great post and it captures the tradition you have brought to all of us so beautifully. Without you there would be no Dia in my life. Thank you for sharing the celebration.