She is a striking figure wearing a feather boa and a permanent grin under the feathered hat of an aristocrat. The black hollows of her eye sockets and hard colorless bones make La Calavera Catrina an instantly recognizable symbol of Dia de los Muertos, the Mesoamerican holiday celebrated Nov. 1 and 2.
The famous portrait of La Calavera Catrina was etched in the early 20th century by Mexican political cartoonist and print artist José Guadalupe Posada.
La Catrina quickly became a powerful icon of the holiday and of Mexican nationalism, said Mark Vanstone, professor of art history at Southwestern College and author of “2012: Science and Prophecy of the Ancient Maya.”
“Posada was able to capture the Mexican self-image,” Vanstone said. “He was great at characterizing those invisible things that define the culture.”
While the lasting image of Posada’s Catrina has become synonymous with Dia de los Muertos, the holiday has much deeper ancient roots, Vanstone said.
The Catholic holidays of All Saints and All Souls Day, also celebrated Nov. 1 and 2, have roots as far back as the fourth century and were created to celebrate the lives of dead saints and loved ones.
As Spanish conquistadors spread across Mesoamerica, native traditions for staying connected with the dead eventually blended with the Catholic tradition to form Dia de los Muertos, said Vanstone.
“Once relatives pass it’s easy to forget the details about who they were and things they liked,” said Brenda Mora, with the communications office at Southwestern College and organizer of Southwestern’s Oct. 29 and 30 Dia de los Muertos festival. “It’s just a way to preserve their memory.”
Mora became involved in the tradition last year when she dedicated a Dia de los Muertos shrine to her grandmother at La Vista Cemetery in National City. It is clear the holiday is deeply meaningful to her as her eyes welled with tears while trying to explain her personal connection to the holiday.
“People who are not familiar with the traditions sometimes see it as morbid,” Mora said, wiping her damp eyelids. “But it’s not. It’s actually very happy.”
The blending of European and native cultures can be seen in the imagery used in the shrines that observers create to pay tribute to loved ones who have died. It is typical for shrines to be decorated with objects, photos and even food that the dead cherished in life.
Christian imagery such as the Holy Cross, candles and pictures of saints are frequently seen on Dia de los Muertos. The painted skulls, snakes and feather boas often incorporated into the shrines are directly connected to Mesoamerican spirituality, the feather boa symbolizing the deity Quetzalcoatl, according to Vanstone.
“Nothing but skulls and skeletons. That’s what I do,” said local graffiti artist Mex. His work is reminiscent of Posada, often featuring skeletons on horseback or in sombreros, sometimes gripping jugs with XXX on the label. “Day of the Dead is going back to my roots. My thing is not just art and paint, but to actually educate people about the history.”
Today the traditional imagery of the La Catrina and El Catrino, the painted skulls, the feathers and flowers has grown in popularity. It can be seen in everything from T-shirts to tequila bottles. While some might say that this kind of commercialization is bad for the holiday, others just want the tradition to flourish.
“It’s all good,” said Mex. “It all raises awareness about the tradtion.”