La Calavera Garbancera and Mexican actitude towards death.
This is one of my experiments from 2014 when I rediscovered Gif animations. It’s a tribute to Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and to traditional folk art from Mexico. Frida’s face is lifting, revealing a calavera (skull in English), a well recognized character in Mexican culture know as La Catrina or La Calavera Garbancera, a female skeleton dressed with the typical outfit used in the early 20th century by the French and European upper class people. This symbol was created by José Guadalupe Posada with the intent to satirize those Mexicans who where ashamed of their indigenous ancestry and where trying to hide their Indian origins by wearing lots of makeup to make their skin look whiter. It was also a critical point of view about the life style of rich people during the reign of Porfirio Díaz.
The calavera, skulls and skeletons are also part of pre-Columbian cultures and their relation with Dead. Mictecacihuatl, the Lady of the Dead and Queen of Mictlán, the underworld, is a goddess from Aztec mythology that resembles the Calavera Catrina. She was in charge of watching over the bones and presiding over festivals of the dead.
The way that Mexicans pay homage to death is still alive in modern celebrations such as the Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) where families gather to remember their deceased loved ones by making ofrendas (offerings) to them. It’s a kind of reunion where the dead gather with the living to share their love and memories. It’s a way to face death as part of the cycle of life. The ofrendas include food and drinks like candies, sugar skulls, pan de los muertos (bread of the dead), bottles or glasses of tequila and mezcal. The offerings may contain other kinds of items such as candles, flowers, pictures and photographs of the deceased, images of saints and devotional paintings known as retablos. All these ofrendas are placed on a ritual altar created to attract spirits of the dead: people from this world can get together and feel closer to the souls of their beloved ones that are now in the other world.
Mexican folk art and indigenous tradition were very important to Frida Kahlo’s cultural background. She collected and upcycled retablos which inspired her painting style, and she is often portrayed with traditional huipiles, a typical garment worn by indigenous women from Mexico.
So on my Gif animation, the calavera under Frida’s face is a crossover between José Guadalupe Posada’s Catrina and the sugar skulls ofrendas painted with particular decorations and style.
There’s even another clue about Mexican and pre-Columbian culture, hidden as one of the calavera‘s decorations: it’s a leaf of Cannabis, commonly known as marijuana (yes, that’s another Mexican word!). It’s one more reference to Meso-American heritage, inspired by Aztec mythology. In fact, Xochipilli was the god of flowers, beauty, art, song, and games. His name means “prince of flowers” or “flower prince”. My guess is that, more than being related to generic flowers, he was related to specific plants. Xochipilli was probably the god of entheogen drugs and is why he’s often represented covered with stylized botanical glyphs. A good example of this kind of representation is the statue unearthed in Tlalmanalco on the slopes of the volcano Popocatepetl now displayed at the Museo Nacional in Mexico City.
As often happens, lack of knowledge leads to misinterpretation, and that’s why for many centuries (and still today) ignorant conquerors and archeologist without botanical studies, especially related to hallucinogenic plants, saw these glyphs as simple floral decorations. Only researchers with a wide preparation in different fields, from archeology to botany and entheogens could interpret the real meaning of those “simple” decorations. Indeed, there are seven different hallucinogenic plants adorning Xochipilli’s body. Notice that the god was also called Chicomexochitl, “seven-flower”, or Macuilxochitl, “five-flower”.
Mexican attitudes towards death are also represented by another figure that gained momentum in recent years in the Americas: the Santa Muerte (Saint Death or Holy Death in English), a.k.a. Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte, a folk saint venerated by a growing number of people but condemned by the Catholic Church.
Like the Catrina, this skeletal character is a female, white and skinny, peculiarities often reflected in the wide variety of her eponyms: La Flaquita or La Flaca (The Skinny Lady), La Huesuda (The Bony Lady), La Señora Blanca (The White Lady), La Hermana Blanca (The White Sister), La Niña Blanca (The White Girl) are some examples.
It’s once again a powerful symbol, typical in Mexican culture, that reminds people of their mortality and that everyone, poor and rich, have to face death sooner or later. So she is often represented with a scythe and a globe, symbols representing the universality of the death that makes us all equals.
The origins of the Santa Muerte cult are unclear, but the syncretism between Mesoamerican and European Catholic culture are quite obvious. Many elements are combined together, such as the image of the Grim Reaper from Europe with the indigenous celebrations of death. I’ve also noticed a similarity between Xochipilli, who was also the patron of both homosexuals and male prostitutes, and the Santísima Muerte, who is also seen as a protector of homosexual, bisexual, and transgender communities in Mexico (LGBT community).
I would like to point out one more connection between La Calavera Catrina and Frida Kahlo: It’s the mural painted by Diego Rivera (Frida’s husband) between 1946 and 1947 entitled Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central which depicts 400 years of Mexico’s major figures and events. The main subject is La Catrina, who is holding on to the arm of José Guadalupe Posada. Next to Posada is Frida holding hands with Rivera represented as a child. This artwork was originally displayed in the Versailles restaurant at the Hotel Prado. It was the only thing of the hotel that survived the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. The mural was then moved to its own museum, the Museo Mural Diego Rivera.
So my animated Gif is a tribute not only to artist Frida Kahlo, but also a tribute to Mexican traditional folk art, and the mixture of humor and respect towards death that lays behind Mexican culture. It’s a digital ofrenda.
You can find more Gif animations on my gallery!