Catrinas, elegant figurines made in ceramic, clay, and other materials are an extraordinary hallmark of Mexican popular culture, one that reflects Day of the Dead traditions in particular and which also tells a history dating back over a century.
The character on which La Calavera Catrina —“The elegant lady”— is based was conceived by Mexican engraver José Guadalupe Posada. The original Catrina was titled La Calavera Garbancera: in the form of an artistic etching in zinc, composed for use as political satire around 1910 intended to poke fun at a certain social class of Mexicans who the artist portrayed as having European-aristocratic aspirations—thus la Catrina’s archetypal grandiose plumed hat of a style which passed through a period of high fashion in Europe during that age.
La Calavera had to wait nearly four decades following its debut before becoming ingrained in popular culture. It was in the late 1940s that Diego Rivera’s mural, Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central —that illustrates four centuries of Mexico’s key characters including Rivera himself, Posada, and Frida Kahlo— that gave Posada’s satirical character exposure and notoriety, as well as the moniker La Calavera Catrina by which the original character is still known and referred to today.
Las Catrinas have since developed a cultural following across Mexico, and the figurines have become an established form of art, popular among the Latino community. Today, artful, elegant and sometimes elaborate Catrinas are recreated by artisans using a variety of materials including ceramic, wood, crepe paper, papier-mâché, clay, resin, compressed sugar, and chocolate. The intricate detail of each sculpture as well as its paint and final decorative detail is all-important, and some meticulously-crafted Catrinas can fetch high prices in art galleries.
The colonial city of Aguascalientes, the birthplace of José Guadalupe Posada, celebrates Las Catrinas every year at its national fair, where an enormous statue of a Catrina is put on display, as well as hosting an annual festival that features music, costumes, dance, and artwork related to celebrating the culture and history of the La Calavera Catrina.
Catrinas become abundantly present during Day of the Dead traditions; sold in markets and art galleries, they can be readily seen on some altars and on display as figurines crafted in a range of different materials and hand-finished, as well on colorful paper cut-outs, statues, and in costume during Day of the Dead processions. It’s also fashionable for participants in Day of the Dead processions and parties to paint their faces to emulate la Catrina.