The Great Dame of Death

She’s not dead. But she’s not alive. She exists somewhere in the realm of the once was. A beautiful hat, tilted over her eye. A dress, swirling with colors—the color of flowers, of the sky, of the ocean, and of a busy marketplace. Of life. She’s sophisticated, she’s out and about. She’s full of life. But she’s not alive. She doesn’t represent life. In fact she’s exactly the opposite. She’s death. Her face is a skull, she’s a skeleton. She’s clearly dead. But then, why does she seem to represent so many things to us that are…alive?

I love Halloween. And I love my home, living so close to the border with Mexico. It was around Halloween when I saw my first Catrina in a marketplace selling Talavera pottery. I fell in love. She was fantastic, elegant. A contradiction, a conversation, her hat full of flowers, so poised and confident. But yet. Dead. I bought her immediately, and she was the first of several that have followed (yes I’m a little obsessed). My Catrinas have become a big source of inspiration to me in my writing, even helping to guide the direction of a few of my characters and always providing me with a lot of new ideas for stories.

Catrinas, these gorgeous ladies of death, are based on “La Calavera Catrina,” a series of iconic images designed by illustrator José Guadalupe Posada. The images have come to be strongly associated with Día de Muertos, the annual celebration honoring the dead that takes place in various areas of Mexico and elsewhere throughout the world. Here in our city Día de Muertos is celebrated with a parade, activities and other events to commemorate the occasion. I look forward to it every year.

Death makes most of us (at least) a little uncomfortable. It’s a grand mystery, and we all wonder about our friends and family who have made the journey before us. But to me these Catrinas make death seem a little bit less frightening. Clearly, they’re dead. But they still look great. They still have style. And if you’ve been to a marketplace selling Catrinas or Catrins (the male counterpart to the Catrinas), you’ll see that these fantastic little creations do all kinds of things (Catrinas riding bikes, playing instruments, Catrinas out on walks, getting married and generally living life.) It’s a refreshing take on a theme as old as humanity, and to me, it’s a welcome breeze of humor in a world that can be very dark and unkind. A little peek into an afterlife we can all sort of relate to.

If you haven’t seen these amazing creations, I highly recommend checking them out if you’re in the Southwest, US. Many of the local markets sell them, made from many different materials ranging from clay to paper mache. They make us think about death, that’s true. But somehow, they make me think more about life, and about the gift that life really is. That, and of the value of a really elegant hat.

Long live these lovely ladies of death (and life).


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