If there’s something you can be sure of about us Mexicans is that we’re not afraid of death, but that doesn’t mean we’re all reckless and pulling stunts that endanger our lives all the time. No, we just see her and embrace her like an old friend that’s been waiting for us.
Death for us is not a “goodbye” but a “farewell, see you later”. We get sad when someone close to us dies and we often say “the thin one took them” but nevertheless we know that someday we’ll see them again, we even know that once a year those who are gone come to visit us.
You’ve probably seen her more than once: the Calavera Catrina (The Elegant Skull), the skeleton wearing elegant dresses and a big hat adorned with feathers. She’s our most famous representation of death, but she wasn’t born that way. While this is not exactly a legend, its existence dates several decades back and is linked to so many things it could very well pass for one.
The creator of the Catrina is José Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican political caricaturist (or a “monero (doodler)” as we call them colloquially) famous for always including skeletons in his socio-political critical caricatures. He drew them to allude to the critical social situation in times of Porfirio Díaz’s government. Back in those times, though, she wasn’t called Catrina, but “La Calavera Garbancera”.
In times of Díaz’s government those that denied their indigenous origins, claiming to have European ascent, were called “garbanceros” (Chickpea carriers). These claims were ridiculous since given their physical features and skin tone it was fairly obvious they were not even remotely European. Years later, the famous muralist Diego Rivera painted the Calavera Garbancera in his mural painting “Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central”. It was the first time the famous skeleton made its appearance dressed up as a high society woman and it was Rivera himself who dubbed her the “Catrina”.
Since then, the famous caricature’s been present in our lives and has been included in every celebration of Día de Muertos turning her (almost) into the main protagonist of the famous date.
There’s no legend as such about the Catrina, but it’s always nice knowing where she comes from and more now than ever, considering her now worldwide fame, as well as the latest fashion of wearing face paint depicting one of our most famous Día de Muertos sweet treat: decorated sugar skulls.