Published On: Wed, Dec 4th, 2019

The Catrina Claus

Day of the Dead has once again exploded this year with tourists from the US and Canada anxious to experience events they’ve seen in the movie, Coco, with all those skeleton folks.

Foreigners’ desire to dress up like a skeletal Catrina (Catrins, or dandy man, for the male version) exploded around town with make-up artists, Victorian era dresses and an endless array of skeleton based art.  Folks on tour constantly ask me where to go to witness Day of the Dead missing the point that Day of the Dead is a highly personal, versus a public, event.

The point to Day of the Dead is to build an altar to your deceased loved ones reminding you that life actually begins at death as then is when you go home to Heaven.  On the altar you place items that would entice the deceased to come back and visit like toys for children.  For my mother I place champagne and Maeve Binchy books.  Dad prefers images of Angie Dickinson. 

Whatever it takes is fine as you review their life as a whole. 

Another altar example is to bring back teachers or plumbers, place Catrinas teaching class or fixing a sink as those images would appeal to them. 

Catrinas started out as political cartoon at the turn of the last century making fun of the wealthy Spanish in Mexico City.  Skeletons in Victorian era dresses reminded folks we are all the same underneath it all.  Catrinas were based on the Aztec goddess of death that was a skeleton that lived underground in her bone castle.  Today the image of a Catrina is the folk art representation of Day of the Dead and whom foreigners want to dress up as.

Mexicans are a bit baffled by Catrina’s recent popularity and foreigners’ fascination with the bone-thin Mexican.  Yes, school children dress as Catrins in honor of children that have come and gone before them, but school based parades lack the resources or desire to visually compete with other parades featuring foreigners with movie star levels make up and costumes.

However, I think the reasons why foreigners are fixated on Catrinas are somewhat obvious.  Mexicans, throughout their lives, have opportunities every month to get dressed up, put on their hair and make-up and perform though song or dance (indigenous, salsa, folk, danzon, etc. each style with their own look). 

With the exception of Burning Man, folks from the US and Canada are limited to Halloween to explore alternative realities through role play and costumes.  On Halloween men can become women while women can become sexy nuns, or whatever.  Whatever catches your interest you can become for a couple hours at a Halloween party. 

So to come to San Miguel and become bone thin, stylish, well made up and elegantly dressed has an immense allure to we foreigners that the Rosewood Hotel, for example, has latched on to.  The hotel has spent immense money, before and after, Day of the Dead to promote experiencing Day of the Dead in Mexico means coming to their hotel to dress up, then parade across town.  Several hundred people, arguably all foreigners but it is hard to tell when just bones, this year joined in the experience.

Sidebar:  I had raised my kids a small island in the Atlantic that spend much to advertise in the magazine, Southern Living.  In return, Southern Living ran articles on the island as a vacation/real estate spot nearly every month.  There have been articles on the Rosewood’s Catrina parade in every major publication, like Travel and Leisure and big city major newspapers.  The difference is each, at the end, stated how the hotel had financially contributed to the article.

I had a couple from Australia on a recent tour that has come twice to Mexico City to view the Catrina parade featuring thousands of skeleton people.  Both times, they got jostled back from their front line position to no longer be able to view the parade.

Even when I go back to my hometown, Hershey, PA,  there are now Catrina figurines, plates and such to buy at Ross, TJ Maxx and alike.  Something I’d never seen before.

Perhaps we are on a cultural cusp.  Much like Santa Claus eventually shoved over Jesus for many in terms of Christmas being a shopping/gift giving event versus a religious holiday; perhaps Catrina is pushing out the altars on Day of the Dead.  Instead of thinking of, and celebrating the lives of dead loved ones, we foreigners are becoming focused on playing dress up, squeezing Day of the Dead into our preexisting notions of trick or treat.

Who knew a skinny Mexican, like a chubby North Pole resident, could heave her weight to alter how Day of the Dead is viewed by foreigners away from the actual altars?

My advice?  Have at it!  Enjoy dressing up and exploring the town whether it is San Miguel, Mexico City or spots in between.  Then, later in evening, go home to your hotel room, or wherever, and light candles on the altar you build earlier to welcome your loved ones back.  It’s the best of both worlds, living and dead.

by Joseph Toone



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