La Vida Valle

October 26, 2014

Calaveras & Catrinas

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Written by: Tapia - Gonzales
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As we approach the somber holidays of Halloween and Dia de Los Muertos – Day of the Dead – the plethora of costumes and figurines surface everywhere. We hear about altar exhibits and Pan de Muerto – Bread of the Dead – as well as Halloween candy and costumes.
Halloween has been celebrated with treats and tricks for many years, hence the people’s perception of it being a fun holiday, but when it comes to the increasingly popular Day of the Dead “celebrations,” some really embrace them while others find them creepy, uncomfortable and even sacrilegious.
The traditions of honoring the death of the pre-colonial people of Mexico were meant to be spiritual in nature, ceremonious and solemn, for it was believed that god granted the spirits of the deceased one day out of the year to visit their live relatives. This belief is at the core of the ritual of preparing an altar to welcome these spirits back into their homes; sweets, food and drink along with flowers and incense- each with a very special meaning – and candlelight vigils at cemeteries is how the natives of Mexico pay homage to the dead.
The Calaveras [kala’ bera], calacas [ka’laka] and Catrinas came much later, and one can probably assume it was with the purpose of enlivening the event and have some fun “celebrating” the dead. Calavera means skull and is sometimes placed at the altars. But the best are the sugar Calaveras, embellished with bright colored decorations (picture shown). There are also literary Calaveras which are poems intended to humorously criticize the living.
The very popular Catrinas are the creation of Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913); a cartoonist and illustrator whose work influenced many Latin American artists due to his satirical acuteness and political engagement. The Spanish word Catrin, refers to a well-dressed, refined gentleman. Catrina is a well-dressed refined lady. Posada’s Catrinas are dressed in the style of the high society ladies of his time. According to an article written by Jim Tuck in 2000, Posada submitted drawings to as many as ten periodicals at one time, most of them political cartoons. Posada’s message and ideas were based on the principle of bringing a popular, anti- establishment message to the masses who lived so miserably under the rule of Dictator Porfirio Diaz, and who were mostly illiterate albeit the use of drawings. Tuck writes about how Posada interpreted the life and social attitudes of the Mexican people using skeletons as metaphors for a corrupt society making him a pioneer expressionist. Due to the nature of his cartoons, Posada landed in jail several times, and because he was not endowed with political favoritism, he died a very poor man.

He was buried in the lowest category of graves only to have his remains thrown out seven years later, for nobody claimed them. What a sad coincidence that today, Posada’s Catrinas are used to commemorate the Day of the Dead all over the world. Like most artists of yesteryear, Posada’s recognition came after his death as Catrina immortalized him.
Most major cities and universities in the Rio Grande Valley host some type of celebration for Day of the Dead which happens on November, 2nd of every year, also known as All Souls Day by Roman Catholics. Port Isabel, Texas schedules a full weekend of festivities, and the area’s museums feature altar exhibits and related activities.

My favorite one is the celebration held at the Harlingen Arts and Heritage Museum. This year’s event will be held on Thursday, October 30th, at 6:00 pm at the museum. Patrons enjoy an altar exhibit, food and drinks, live music by Grupo Americanto, Matachines dancers and the opportunity to  dance with a live Catrin and Catrina. Admission is free. For more information please call the museum at (956)-216-4901.

The featured photograph is my own version of Posada’s Catrina painted in 2008 – (featured photograph), and sugar skulls recipes can be found online.

sugar skulls

Posada Cartoon

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About the Author

Tapia - Gonzales
La Vida Valle is where I write about "la vida" living in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Life, art and culture, poetry, prayers, travel, and camping! yes, that's my new thing. I blame the heat and high humidity for the madness. Contributions and comments are always welcome .


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