La Catrina has become a Dia de Muertos icon – but did you know it was originally a satirical statement? Here’s the backstory of the Day of the Dead Catrina.
Everywhere you go during Day of the Dead in Mexico, you’ll see her face. It’s in the decorations, the paintings, the makeup on children’s faces, the elaborate dress of the women, and in every shop window selling souvenirs of this uniquely atmospheric festival.
This is La Calavera Catrina (which translates to mean “the elegant skull”) – an elegantly dressed female skeleton adorned in European clothing and often depicted wearing a wide-rimmed hat. Even if you haven’t been to Mexico, you have probably seen La Catrina in various contexts because the striking unique character has become a Mexican icon in the last years.
So who is she exactly? What is the story behind La Catrina? How did she become a symbol of Day of the Dead? The essence of her story goes deep into Mexican traditions and roots but has been restyled only in the last century. In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into the Day of the Dead Catrina.
Table of Contents
- La Catrina: Day of the Dead Icon
- What is Day of the Dead?
- Origins of the Day of the Dead Catrina
- How La Catrina Gained Fame
- The Evolution of Day of the Dead Catrina
- Where to See a Catrina Parade
- Is It Disrepectful to Dress Like La Catrina ?
- What Are Other Day of the Dead Symbols?
- Things to Know About Day of the Dead
- Mexico Travel Guide
- Is It Safe to Visit Mexico for Day of the Dead?
- How to Stay Connected in Mexico
- Final Tips for Celebrating Day of the Dead
- Enjoy Celebrating Day of the Dead in Mexico!
La Catrina: Day of the Dead Icon
What is Day of the Dead?
First, let’s dig deep into the origins of La Catrina and how it’s associated with the Day of the Dead. The origins of the Day of the Dead can be traced back to pre-Columbian indigenous cultures in Mexico, such as the Aztecs, Maya, and Purépecha.
The Aztecs held a festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the “Lady of the Dead,” who presided over the underworld. This festival was celebrated during the ninth month of the Aztec calendar (approximately August) and involved offerings to honor the deceased, including skulls made of amaranth seeds.
For the Aztecs, death was simply a trip to Mictlán, the underworld in Aztec mythology. This was a blessing, not a curse. They saw death as more of a transition than an end, and the underworld was a place they could relax and enjoy. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the early 16th century, they brought Catholicism with them. The Catholic All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2) were aligned with the beliefs and practices related to death and ancestor worship.
Origins of the Day of the Dead Catrina
La Catrina was not the preHispanic goddess of death, Mictecacihuatl. The classy skeletal lady was first created in 1910 by Jose Guadalupe Posada, as a satirical commentary on the Mexican upper class’s emulation of European customs.
Posada was a controversial and political cartoonist that was widely adored and who drew and etched calaveras (skeletons) in a satirical way to remind people that we all die someday. He drew the dandy-looking female skeleton with a fancy feathered hat because many Mexicans tried hard to look wealthy and aristocratic like the Europeans at that time.
The satirical illustration served as a poignant reminder for individuals to be themselves and stop pretending to be someone they’re not. Regardless of one’s wealth, poverty, racial background, or societal affiliation, the ultimate fate for all was the same: we all die. This profound message was eloquently conveyed through Jose Guadalupe Posada’s numerous caricatures of calaveras engaged in everyday tasks. Among his most widely recognized phrases was “Death is democratic,” a concise yet profoundly accurate assertion.
How La Catrina Gained Fame
The image of La Catrina gained further prominence when Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (Frida Kahlo’s husband) included La Catrina in his famous work “Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central” (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central). The mural, which depicts 400 years of Mexican history, dates back to the 1940s and features a prominent depiction of various significant Mexican figures, prominently including La Catrina.
Rivera portrayed her adorned in elegant attire, complete with an opulent feathered hat, a defining style that endures as her signature look to this day. In Rivera’s mural, La Catrina is depicted walking alongside other historical figures, capturing the idea that death is an inevitable part of life.
This remarkable mural can still be admired at the Museo Mural de Diego Rivera, one of the best museums in Mexico City. If you ever find yourself in Mexico City, I highly recommend visiting this museum; it’s an experience well worth your time.
The Evolution of Day of the Dead Catrina
The intertwining of La Catrina and Día de los Muertos was a natural evolution of traditions over time. Today, La Catrina is a beloved figure often depicted in Day of the Dead celebrations through art, crafts, and costumes, serving as a beautiful and meaningful representation of the interconnectedness of life and death. The adoption of La Catrina a Day of the Dead symbol takes many forms – from the sugar skulls in every shop window to the makeup and dress exhibited by festival-goers everywhere, male and female, Catrin and Catrina.
In many ways, the Day of the Dead Catrina connects different eras and their interpretations of death. Her graceful attire suggests a sense of festivity, while her unwavering smile reminds us that accepting mortality can offer solace and that it’s important to remember and honor the departed rather than fear them. It underscores the idea that, regardless of who we are, we all share the same destiny.
Where to See a Catrina Parade
Each year, hundreds of people dress up as Catrinas during Day of the Dead in Mexico City and descend on the zócalo to take part in the Catrina parade. Attendees paint their faces in the typical style of the Catrina skull, complete with colorful accents around the eyes and cheeks, and dress in outfits appropriate for the occasion.
Anyone can participate and march along the Paseo de la Reforma. This year (2023), the procession will start at 18.45 at Angel de la Independencia in Mexico City’s historic center. Follow the event FB page for details.
Is It Disrepectful to Dress Like La Catrina ?
Many people will get their faces painted in the Day of the Dead Catrina style. I checked with many locals, and they confirmed that it’s not rude/disrespectful to wear face-painting in the cemeteries either.
There are tons of makeup artists with temporary stands everywhere in Oaxaca and Mexico City. A face paint costs around 100 – 150 MXN ($5-7.5) and takes 10-20 minutes. They usually have a book of designs to choose from, or you can show them what you want on your phone.
To complete the look, you can also get flower crown headbands from these street vendors. Most are inexpensive, at around 100-200 MXN ($5-10). If you want to buy them online before your trip, Amazon has a few options.
What Are Other Day of the Dead Symbols?
There are so many Dia de los Muertos symbols — every single item on the altar and in cemeteries represents something and has a meaning. For instance, you’ll often find cempasúchil (marigold flowers) in altars and decorations. They are also known as “flor de Muerto” (Spanish for flower of the dead) and play a central role in Day of the Dead traditions. Cempasúchil symbolizes the beauty and fragility of life.
You’ll often see figures of alebrijes, vibrant and fantastical Mexican folk art sculptures that represent creatures from the underworld. These Mexican spirit animals are often imaginative combinations of different animals, resulting in surreal and visually captivating forms. They hold deep cultural significance and have become emblematic of Mexican folk art.
Things to Know About Day of the Dead
When is Day of the Dead ?
Officially, Day of the Dead is a two-day holiday, taking place November 1st and November 2nd. But in many cities, Dia de los Muertos can be a week-long affair. Some events start as early as 23 October and many decorations and altars will be up by 26 October. The parade in Mexico City usually takes place on the Saturday before 1-2 November.
If you’re planning a trip to Mexico for Day of the Dead, I suggest planning to stay from 26 October to 2 November. In Oaxaca for example, there will be non-stop events happening throughout the week, from parades to street parties, outdoor markets, display of mega ofrendas, and food festivals. Spending a week will give you time to experience all the events and explore the city and its surroundings.
Celebrate Day of the Dead with a Group!
Celebrating Day of the Dead in Mexico is a deeply immersive experience, but it can also get extremely hectic and intense. If you’re not a confident traveler or you don’t do well in crowded places, your best bet is to book a group tour. They will take care of the logistics and the local guide can give you a great overview of Dia de Muertos traditions.
We didn’t book a tour, and we went to all the events and cemeteries mentioned in this article ourselves. It was easy taking Uber around. But for solo travelers who don’t speak Spanish, it might be wise (and more fun!) to join a group.
Here are some Day of the Dead tours available:
It Gets Busy in Mexico
In recent years, more and more travelers are flocking to Mexico for the Day of the Dead celebrations. Being able to witness and join in the festivities is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I honestly think it’s the best time to visit Mexico.
However, this means that airfares and hotel prices are higher than ever, and accommodation gets fully booked months in advance. You’ll also need to prepare for the overwhelming amount of tourists wherever you go. Oaxaca in particular was packed with foreigners when we visited in 2022.
Day of the Dead is NOT Halloween!
If there’s one thing you need to know about Dia de los Muertos — it is not Mexican Halloween. Deeply rooted in indigenous traditions, the Day of the Dead is a celebration that honors deceased loved ones and reflects a belief in the continuity of life and death. It has a strong connection to pre-Columbian cultures like the Aztecs, Maya, and Purépecha.
Halloween, on the other hand, has its roots in Celtic and European pagan traditions. It originated in the Gaelic festival of Samhain, marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. It has evolved into a more commercialized holiday, emphasizing on silly costumes, going to parties and trick or treating.
That said, Mexicans (usually the younger generation) do celebrate Halloween and tend to dress up in ghoulish costumes on 31 October. Kids also go trick-or-treating and get candy. But Halloween is definitely not as celebrated as Day of the Dead in Mexico.
Dress Appropriately for Day of the Dead in Mexico
As mentioned, Dia de los Muertos is not the Mexican Halloween — please leave your sexy nurse or superhero costumes at home! To resemble La Catrina, most people wear black velvet dresses or simple floral dresses. You can find beautiful Mexican embroidered dresses in local markets for cheap (US$10-15).
Keep in mind that at this time of the year, it gets chilly in the evenings in many cities like Oaxaca and Mexico City. It will be dry and warm during the day, but the temperature drops once the sun sets. So pack jeans and a sweater or light jacket for night time.
Be Respectful at Cemeteries
During Day of the Dead in Mexico, cemeteries are filled with people gathering, singing and celebrating their departed loved ones. The atmosphere is incredible: people huddle in blankets, sipping tequila, and telling stories amidst candlelight and burning incense. Outside the cemetery, you will find street food carts, games stores, and a carnival-like atmosphere.
Even though the atmosphere in the cemeteries are lively and festive, remember to be respectful. Don’t touch any of the graves or displays, and don’t sit on them.
Mexico Travel Guide
Whether you are traveling Mexico for a year or a week, I always recommend travelers to buy travel insurance. You never know what will happen, plus you’ll get compensated for things like flight cancellations, delays, loss of luggage and other incidents. Read my travel insurance guide.
Safety Wing is the most popular travel insurance company for COVID19-coverage. I use their Nomad Insurance plan, which covers COVID-19 as any other illness as long as it was not contracted before your coverage start date.
Is It Safe to Visit Mexico for Day of the Dead?
It can get crowded in many parts of Mexico during Day of the Dead; but as long as you’re on your guard, you will be fine. Be on the alert while in crowded areas or when joining in a comparsa (mini parade), especially at night. My husband, daughter and I all never felt unsafe celebrating Day of the Dead in Mexico City and Oaxaca.
But I have heard of friends getting robbed while drinking on the streets in Oaxaca. Things like that do happen, so keep your wits about you. Always make sure to keep your belongings close to you, bring minimal cash with us, and stay in a group. Avoid seedy areas or please don’t get drunk on the streets if you’re alone.
How to Stay Connected in Mexico
Internet in Mexico is pretty fast and reliable, and you can get WiFi in most hotels and guesthouses. To get internet on the go, I recommend getting an eSIM before traveling. With a Mexico eSIM (digital SIM card), you can toss out your physical cards and simply activate it on your phone through an app. I have bought many eSIMs on Airalo and they have all worked perfectly. Airalo is the world’s first eSIM store. Check out Airalo’s Mexican eSIMs.
You can also get a SIM card at the airport upon arrival or at any OXXO shop in Mexico. A SIM card itself costs between 29 and 149 pesos (around $1-6 USD). You can get 3GB of data valid for 30 days on the sin limite plan (unlimited) for 200 pesos (~8 USD.) That will also give you unlimited calls, texts, and most social media within North America.Read my guide on how to get a SIM card in Mexico.
Final Tips for Celebrating Day of the Dead
- Book your hotels early and reserve Day of the Dead group tours in advance as it’s a very busy time of the year.
- Plan to arrive in Mexico by 26th October as the festivities start early. The big parade in Mexico City usually takes place on the Saturday before 1 November. In 2023, it will likely be on 28th October (dates have not been announced yet).
- Be respectful of the Oaxaca Day of the Dead celebrations. This Mexican holiday celebrates the deceased with centuries-old traditions. Have fun and join in the celebrations, but don’t get drunk or high on the streets.
- Dia de Muertos is not a version of Halloween, so please do not wear sexy nurse or superhero costumes.
- Read up on Day of the Dead symbols and understand their meaning — it will make your experience in Mexico all the more meaningful here.
- Do not touch ofrendas or anything you see on an altar, it’s disrespectful.
- Tourists are welcome to visit the cemeteries during Day of the Dead, but please do not touch anything on the altars or sit on tombstones.
- Avoid taking photos of people, or ask for permission before taking. Do not use flash at night.
- Cash is king in Mexico, so carry cash with you at all times. Only nice restaurants and hotels will accept cards.
Enjoy Celebrating Day of the Dead in Mexico!
I hope this article has shed some light on the mysterious Day of the Dead Catrina. She is such a visual representation of how Mexicans view death. No matter what you look like and where you come from you will end up a skeleton in the end with everyone else!
If you’re planning to visit Mexico for Dia de Muertos, here is a complete guide on Day of the Dead, including its history, traditions and some things to know before you go. I have also written specific posts on celebrating Day of the Dead in Mexico City and Oaxaca Dia de Muerto celebrations, including schedules of events, specific places to visit, and restaurants to try. Let me know if you have any questions in the comments field below.
For those who are planning to travel more of Mexico, check out other articles I’ve written on Mexico:
- My Guide to Celebrating Day of the Dead in Mexico
- Best Places to Celebrate Day of the Dead
- Day of the Dead Symbols & Traditions
- Day of the Dead in Mexico City
- Day of the Dead in Oaxaca
- What Are Alebrijes?
- Mexico Holidays and Traditions
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