Boo! While the rest of the world might not be in the mood for horror after Halloween, Mexico celebrates its “Día de Muertos” (Day of the Dead) on November 1st and 2nd. Mexican families celebrate this day to commemorate their deceased; tourists and spectators in other countries often view it as the ultimate representation of what constitutes being Mexican: Día de Muertos is colourful, morbid, emotional and incredibly complex. In recent interviews on this blog the Mexican society has been described as inherently machista. Thus, it sounds even more surprising that Día de Muertos is dominated by “female” figures. “Female”, because – well – they are dead, so gender does not sound like that much of a problem anymore. Still, “La Calavera Catrina” and “Santa Muerte” encapsulate femininity and universality, birth and death, and love and vengeance alike. The traits further explored are linked so tightly to womanhood that a male representation of “La Calavera Catrina” and “Santa Muerte” would not be possible. Although there are similar male concepts like “San la Muerte” in Paraguay and Argentina or the male pendant “El Catrín”, they do have the particular implications “Santa Muerte” and “La Calavera Catrina” have.

Original sketch of “La Calavera Catrina” by José Guadalupe Posada (1913)

Día de Muertos’ most iconic symbol is the fancily dressed skeleton woman “La Calavera Catrina” (The Posh Skull) which originates from a sketch by José Guadalupe Posada. He created it to make fun of the Mexican bourgeoisie at the beginning of the 20th century, the famous Mexican artist Diego Riviera later added a heavily ornamented dress to the character. She is supposed to remind people that everybody – regardless of their social class – has to die one day. Her grinning face however, tells humans not to take it too seriously either.

Although she is supposed to address everyone, her markers are obviously female: the wide-brimmed hat, the pompous dress, the jewellery. Her appearence emphasizes that it is easier to display vanity and prestige as attributes to the female body rather than to a male. Looking at the time when “La Calavera Catrina” was created, a woman’s greatest value was her attractivity. A man, however, had to be successful to have a woman like that as beautiful arm candy. So, the probability that there could have been a male representation of “La Calavera Catrina” is small. Considering the pretty, thin wives of rich, old men today, this finding does not only apply to the past, but also to the lives of the rich or young and beautiful of the 21st century.

Statue of “Santa Muerte”

While “La Calavera Catrina” is omnipresent around Día de Muertos, Santa Muerte (Saint Death) is a bit harder to find, with statues located in the poor neighbourhoods of Mexico City, less polished, less posh. Santa Muerte is a personification of death, but also a character in limbo: she is worshipped by millions of Mexican Catholics, but rejected as blasphemy by the Catholic church itself. She is considered a saint and presumably listens to the darkest prayers of narcos, prison inmates and prostitutes. When people come her shrine, she is most frequently asked to perform love magic – begged for the love of a beloved or the death of a rival. Worshippers pray to Santa Muerte by incending candles: golden for money-related matters, blue for peace, and red for love – by far the most prominent colour. There is also a black candle, promising to eliminate negative influences and to hurt. It is mostly lit in private spaces.

Santa Muerte is part of an urban folklore cult located in the center of Tepito, Mexico City’s most notorious barrio. Andrew Chestnut, a US-american professor for theology in Virgina, has been doing research on Santa Muerte for years. To him, the saint is the embodiment of protection and caring, accepting everyone unconditionally, regardless of their income, social status or crime record – presumably a reason why so many lower class citizens are devoted to her. Her traits evoke a funny paradox: She displays characteristics of a mother, she gives life, enhances it, accompanies her worshippers in every cirumstance. At the same time, she is supposed to kill the people she has fostered before.

Starting as a minor cult in socially marginalised surroundings, “Santa Muerte” now has more than two million devotees in Mexico and the USA and is recognized as a religious organization in Mexico – in spite of heavy protests of the Roman Catholic Church. This is not merely surprising considering the fairly liberal dogma of the Church of Santa Muerte: gay marriage is acknowleged and practiced, contraception is not prohibited and even abortion is accepted within certain limts. It is nevertheless not possible to say if these progressive views are linked to the female deity being worshipped.

The ambiguity of “La Catrina Cavalera” and “Santa Muerte”, however, is indeed caused by them being women. It is the woman’s highly valued beauty which represents vanity and decadence so clearly. Her ability and often even duty to bear children makes a female angel of death the perfect eerie counterpart to the loving mother. And it is precisely the trait of the unconditionally loving mother which could make “Santa Muerte” so popular in the first place. A mother cares and a mother forgives – for whatever despicable things you might ask her. Expecting that mercy from the social representation of a father would be a whole different story.


Header Picture: “Giant Calavera de la Catrina in the Zócalo” by Randal Sheppard on Flickr


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