TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Friday, October 17, 2008

Posada's La Catrina: Dancing with Life and Death

Posada's La Catrina

The happy-go-lucky skeletons have made Mexico's Day of the Dead big business all over the world. This ancient celebration coincides with Europe's All Hallows Eve by a couple of days (November 2nd instead of October 31st). Both have roots in harvest rituals and in preparation for the change of seasons, when night becomes longer than day. FullHomelyDivinity has an excellent page with articles comparing the two, but for this post, I want to zoom in on La Catrina, the dandy lady who has become one of the most recognizable symbols of the Day of the Dead.

Jose Guadalupe Posada in front of his workshop
(furthest to the right)

La Catrina was brought to life by Jose Guadalupe Posada Aguilar, Mexico's famous engraver and illustrator. Commonly known as Posada, he lived between 1852 and 1913, a time of great change, turmoil, revolution and importance in Mexico's history. Gifted with the ability to capture both events and humor, Posada popularized the Day of the Dead by depicting skeletons in every day attire. By the 1930's and 40's local artists took his lead and started a folk art industry that would soon gain the attention of collectors such as Rockefeller and the Mexican elite.

Mexico has long had a rich culture of handicrafts. Whole villages dedicate themselves to one technique or another depending on their natural resources and local traditions. Handicraft production fits neatly into agricultural lifestyles where the family rotates into seasons of production and rest. But, the Day of the Dead has captured the imagination and admiration of people from all over the world.

What is it about La Catrina and her fellow skeletons that make us want to join in the fun? I believe that part of it is our fascination with death, but also a disenfranchisement of how Halloween has become a morbid, disgusting, free-for-all worship of blood lust, gore and dehumanization. I wond lots of "best costume" prizes at Halloween parties as a kid. I still like going to costume parties, but I shudder each year when the blood and gore movies and costumes start hitting the screens. I find it appalling that parents let their children dress up in costumes that elevate rapists and murderers into national icons.

The Day of the Dead centers its belief on our common ties between those who are living and those who are dead. It is believed that on November 2nd, the line between the living and the dead is at its finest, so some beloved friends and family who have passed on might just be hanging around, and if they are, it's a good idea to let them know that they are missed. So, altars bearing their favorite foods, trinkets and photos of them remind both the living and the dead about the things they shared. The Day of the Dead in Mexico celebrates life and recognizes that we are all skeletons inside, walking around. The Day of the Dead is poetry, a song, a ballad of life that also honors death.

La Catrina is a dandy. She is a Victorian poof. But, take the symbols of her vanity off, her clothes, her hat and what happens? She becomes a skeleton, just like anybody else. This is such an important reminder that our skin color, our beauty or lack of it, our possessions, are really temporal symbols.

Sabrina Zarco's quilt of La Catrina.
"Remembering loved ones doing things they did in this life."

But, even though she might have been a Victorian snob, La Catrina survives today mostly as someone who calls the living to enjoy life, to not fear death, and to embrace all of what each has to offer.

In a culture which demonizes death and old age, I find La Catrina and her friends to be a breath of fresh air. Yet, I am not Mexican. I am a big, white Viking girl with no blood ties to Mexican culture. Is it right for me to accept La Catrina's invitation for a dance? Or, should she only belong to Mexicans? Google around for Day of the Dead products and you will find lots of non-Mexican artists using the imagery. Shouldn't I be delving into my roots of runes and Norse mythology?

Novelty Creations, La Catrina Bag on Etsy

Well, that was a long time ago and I really don't have as much of a living connection with those old Vikings (although there are some great stories) as I do with my Mexican friends or all the other people I have met from many other countries. I'm one of those products of our time who has no real roots anywhere.

As a Christian, I also have ties to other cultures that have nothing to do with my blood roots. Jesus was a Jew, the Old Testament is filled with influences from Abraham's travels through pagan lands, and so my memory context is diffused into a bizarre blend of pieces from here and there. I have always been intrigued with the curses and blessings in the Old Testament, where generations are cursed or blessed for this or that. Often it happens to be seven generations. I have come to believe that perhaps that's about how long it for one generation to lose its connection with the past. Isn't this our modern challenge? To look at where we come from and what is around us, to sift the good from the bad? If that is so, then I have no remorse in sending today's Halloween out the door and replacing it with the Day of the Dead..... Will you dance with me, Lady Catrina?

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“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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