PART FIVE: LA CATRINA
It is a most sincere truth
that this adage makes us see:
only one who was never born
can never a death’s-head be.
– Mexican “Corrido” (folk song)
Parts 1-4 of this essay can be found here.
The worship of Mexico’s Great Mother Goddess is still alive. As I have explained, she reappeared in sixteenth century Catholicism as the Virgin of Guadalupe and later in folklore as La LLorona, the Weeping Woman. A hundred years ago during the Mexican Revolution, she took on yet another form, this time in popular culture: La Catrina, the ironically humorous image we commonly associate with Dia De Los Muertos, Day of the Dead.
I am indebted to (and will be quoting from, with his permission) an article of the same name by Raphael Jesús González:
One great change that developed in the colonial period is that peculiar note of humor, whimsy, irony, and irreverence that informs the Day of the Dead as it has come to us and which gives it its peculiarly Mexican flavor. Nowhere is it recorded, to my knowledge, that humor or irreverence about death had a place in indigenous Mexican sensibility, but in medieval and renaissance Spain it did…(It) informed the medieval Feast of Fools…and not suppressed in Spain until the Counter-Reformation, and even then survived in the Feast of Carnaval (carne vale, farewell to flesh.)…all social hierarchy is leveled and nothing is beyond levity, criticism, and ridicule. And what greater leveler of hierarchies, the memento mori tradition reminds us, than Death?
At some point, Mexican peasants began to place sugar confections shaped like skulls on their altars for the dead. They added toy skeletons and little skeleton dolls depicting every station of social life and common activity from defecation to canonization. Brightly painted clay skulls came to adorn the altars. By doing this, they made death itself somewhat less fearful and its pain somewhat less sharp.
And they created “calaveras” – funny, often scurrilous verses that commented on current events and lampooned prominent ecclesiastical and political figures (the term calavera means “skull” but also “empty-headed fool”). Artists such as D. José Guadalupe Posada contributed the famous graphic images of skulls and skeletons, such as the lady Catrina.
But Catrina is much more than a comic icon associated with a holiday. González suggests that we examine the central section of Diego Rivera’s magnificent mural “Sunday Dream in the Alameda Park” (housed in Mexico City’s Museo Mural Diego Rivera). Here, the Calavera Catrina rests her left hand on Posada’s arm and holds the hand of Rivera (depicted as a young boy) with her right. Frida Kahlo, his nursemaid, stands behind, her hand on his shoulder.
The Calavera Catrina is the focus around which the entire composition pivots. Who is she? As Posada’s image, she is the most pertinent of post-colonial Mexico’s memento mori icons. In Posada’s engraving, only the grimacing skull is portrayed and she wears the ostentatious hat of lace, velvet flowers and ostrich plumes favored by the women of the newly empowered middle-class…The adjective catrín means elegantly-dressed but with a strong suggestion of affectation.
In Rivera’s mural she is more; she is the Coatlicue. She is dressed all in white, almost bridal. This is accented by Posada’s formal black Sunday attire so that the pair make a couple such as might adorn a wedding cake. She is the mother…As Death she is united to Life and she indeed wears as a stole or boa the God of Life, Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent, and in case there be any doubt as to her station, she wears embossed on the buckle of her belt the glyph ollin, Movement, designation of the Fifth Universe, the present world. This Life-Death duality is further reinforced by the figure of the boy Rivera himself who has coming out of his pockets a snake and a frog, pre-Hispanic symbols of generation and regeneration associated with the Mother-Goddess, and holds an umbrella whose handle is the head of a vulture, bird associated with death. Should there be any lingering doubt, Frida Kahlo, his nursemaid, holds the yin-yang between the figures of Diego and Doña Calavera.
These are deeply significant images, writes González, who reminds us that
…in the pre-Hispanic cosmology Life and Death are not only indivisibly united but equal as indeed they are in the psychological paradox of Eros and Thanatos; to deny one is to deny the other…(but here) the plumed serpent, god of life, hangs limp and dead about the neck of the lively figure of Death.
This is the image, Rivera’s dream seems to say, of the modern world; Coatlicue is robbed of her terrible majesty and appears as a somewhat commonplace, over-dressed matron of the bourgeoisie. Life hangs impotent and limp about her neck…If I have paused so long on one particular work, it is to give evidence that the Mexican cult of death is not merely a quaint folk custom but informs high art to the very present. And art is not merely a precious amenity, but intensifies perception and brings into consciousness and into the social context the truths, intuitions, concerns of the human condition which we may ignore only at great risk.
The image catapults us into the present moment, back into a demythologized world in which men – uninitiated men who cannot grieve – continue to drive us all toward an apocalyptic future. And it leads González to note the fascination (in the past thirty years) with Dia De Los Muertos, especially among gringos:
…the industrial age, which Mexico did not enter until late in the nineteenth century, was born of the Reformation, Protestantism, with its suspicion and distrust of the body…attempted to suppress the erotic and, corollary to this, made death banal.
Having rid Christianity of the Goddess, Protestantism then removed the corpus, the body of Christ, from the cross itself. Not only did it deny Christ his mother, but it also took away his most important aspect, his humanity. The icon of the fully sexual and sensual Madonna of medieval and renaissance art was gone. And without the body, the cross upon which he suffered and died became a purely abstract, dehumanized – and depotentiated – symbol. Gonzales continues:
… when we deny or suppress a drive or impulse…we become obsessed with its objects and its techniques. The suppressed icon of the fully sensual Madonna and the fully erotic classic nude goddess become the modern icon of woman as sex-object in advertising and entertainment…And in the resultant obsession, passion gives way to technique. Eliminating the bleeding, dying Christ from his cross leaves us merely with the instrument, the techne, of his death. Death becomes an obsession without feeling at best as can be seen in the never-ending depiction of violent death on television, in the movies, in video-games.
And, I would add, in our streets and our politics. As Mexico’s great poet Octavio Paz wrote, “A civilization that denies death ends up by denying life.” Michael Meade took this insight further, arguing that since America denies death more than any culture in history, it is forced to inflict it upon others. How else can we explain (the terminology of empire is insufficient here) why the United States has overthrown or attacked some fifty sovereign nations since the end of World War Two? How else do we explain the bombing of hospitals and wedding parties? How else explain our own mass shootings?
But, asks Gonzales, “…die we all must; it can’t be helped. And when we do, how do we celebrate it?” He notes our sterile, unemotional American funerals, where “…mourners leave before the water-proof box is lowered into the hole. Where to, we don’t know, the unexpressed grief to be aired months or years later in the consultation room of a psychotherapist.” In Mexico, however,
…we are not cheated of our sorrow that easily, or of our joy. We crowd the rooms of our dying, and hospital rules cannot keep us out. We die to the whispers, caresses, prayers of family and friends, in someone’s arms or with someone holding our hand. And we celebrate our dead with crying and lamentation and laughter and sometime curses and song in the long velorio (wake.) There is food and tequila and beer, frothy sweet chocolate and black bitter coffee. We tell long stories and praise the dead as we wish we had done more often while they lived. Yes, and also voice our rancors and resentments toward them. We wear black and say our rosaries in unison punctuated by an occasional wail or fit. And we are not satisfied until we see the box lowered into the hole and we have thrown our shovel or fistful of dirt upon it with a flower or two. Then on to more feasting and carrying on.
And then we invite our dead to join us at least once a year. We put food out for them, their favorite dishes and drink, especially baked bread, tequila or mezcal, and yellow marigolds to make them glad. And lights, candles in the Trees of Life which have also adorned the wedding altars, for life and death are a continuum in the adventure of being human…We laugh a little with death and cry a good bit because little can sweeten the loss of those we love. We keep our memories lively because our dead are precious to us.
And here is the key, the insight that gringos have begun to listen to, the reason for our need to engage in meaningful ritual:
Only by celebrating their preciousness do we learn to hold precious the living, for it may be that at any moment the living may leave us or we them and join the vast ranks of the dead. Así es la vida.
And it is the reason we welcome the return of the Great Mother Goddess:
…more and more there are those of us who are reclaiming it for ourselves because we intuit that if we do not hold precious our dead we may grow careless of our living. It is a way to learn or relearn balance, and if we don’t, may the bountiful and tremendous Mother who is both our cradle and our grave have pity on us.