Tag Archives: Mexican Revolution

Day of the Dead: Calavera Catrina

You probably think you don’t know who or what Calavera Catrina is, but I’m sure you do, even if you don’t realise it. Mexican folk art and culture has been becoming more and more well-known in Europe, and the ‘Mexican lady’ is now a popular Halloween fancy dress choice – basically a swishy gothic-looking full length dress, a large hat with even larger feathers, and the all-important skull facepaint embellished with colourful swirly glitter around the eyes. Well this ‘Mexican lady’ is actually an iconic character called Calavera Catrina, the ‘Elegant Skull’.

Calavera Catrina originates in a zinc etching by renowned Mexican illustrator José Guadalupe Posada, produced between 1910 and 1913, which were crucial years in the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. It depicts a female skeleton wearing nothing but a flouncy hat in the style of the Mexican aristocracy emanating from European high-society fashion of the moment. The figure bears resemblance to Carmen Romero Rubio, the second wife of Mexican President Porforio Diaz, who’s turbulent time in office created much inspiration for Posada’s satirical critique of Mexican politics. Calavera Catrina is a potrait mocking Mexican natives who Posada felt were shunning their true roots in aspiring to adopt European upper class habits.

The Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) crucially led to a new appreciation of Mexico’s indigenous past, and the Calavera Catrina became a poignant symbol of Mexico’s cultural independence from the more recently Eurocentric elite. By the time Diego Rivera included Calavera Catrina in his mural Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda (Dream of a Sunday afternoon along Central Alameda) in 1948, she had become a symbol of the integration of Pre-Hispanic and post-colonial ideals (Rivera’s work is notorious for its almost chaotic and contradictory ideas – he depicted communist ideals and fierce Mexican independence in any one moment, yet was highly criticised for taking commissions from US high society figures the next). Today, however, Calavera Catrina remains an important symbol of Mexican national and cultural identity, no doubt largely because of the importance of skulls and skeletons in Aztec ritual and worship.

Puebla hosted a Desfile de Catrinas – a Parade of Catrinas – on Sunday night, which saw hundreds of Poblanas dressed up to the nines flounce through the city centre accompanied by marching bands. Much like Sussex Bonfire Night parades (but without the fire) it also featured lots of glowsticks, devils and mummies; a sign of its inevitable melding with Halloween themes in modern times.

As well as the Catrinas and non-Catrina tag-alongs, the parade featured skeletons in all forms, shapes, and sizes. The generic name calaca is a colloquial term for skeleton in Mexican Spanish, given to the joyous skeletal figure that adorns everything around Day of the Dead. They can take male, female, or animal form (dogs are especially popular), and they’re usually in traditional Mexican costume and undertaking some kind of fun activity such as playing an instrument, singing or dancing. The jolly figurines (made of anything and everything) give the impression that the afterlife for Mexicans is just as much of a riot as the life of the living. Joy and laughter form such an integral part of Mexican life, why would the emphasis placed on pleasure and parties after death be any different?

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Que viva Puebla

Naturally, the first thing I did when I found out that I’d be living in Puebla was take to the internet and scour the search pages. And what did I find? Puebla is the capital of the state of the same name, and is most famous for being the city in which the French troops of Napoleon III were defeated on the 5th of May, 1862 in the great Battle of Puebla. At the time the French army was considered the most powerful army in the world, and the Mexicans were outnumbered, under-skilled, and ill-equipped. Nevertheless, the Mexicans fought them off until they retreated, making it the first French defeat since Waterloo in 1815, and the first time that penniless, war-torn Mexico had defeated a foreign invader. The army leader heralded with this monumental triumph is General Ignacio Zaragoza. Heralded so much was he, that the following year the city was renamed in his honour from Puebla de los Ángeles to Puebla de Zaragoza. As if that wasn’t quite glorious enough, it was renamed again in 1950 as Heróica Puebla de Zaragoza. And to emphasise the heroical history of Puebla and General Zaragoza just a teeny tiny little bit more, when the children write the fecha completa (full date) at the top of every page in their workbooks, it is written ‘H. Puebla de Z., a 12 de Mayo 2014’. (Just don’t mention that the French came back in 1863 and successfully captured the city.)

We know by now that the Mexicans don’t normally need any excuse to celebrate, so you can imagine what happens when they do have one: all hands on deck! Cinco de Mayo (Fifth of May) was born, and is celebrated annually with the month-long Feria de Puebla, a huge fair held on the site of the battleground with rides, bars, daily music events, games and conferences. And on the day itself (of course a bank holiday), an enormous parade makes its way through the city. The Pueblans are very proud of it, and as preparations began, including huge stands and seating lining the Boulevard Cinco de Mayo, I grew increasingly intrigued to see what was in store. The parade was due to start at midday, and on the night before my host mum told me that we’d be leaving at 8am to get a good seat. Slightly excessive, I thought, given that we live a three minute walk from the Boulevard. But when we arrived we squeezed into the last two front-row spots and bought a pair of little wooden stools to wait. For the next few hours many minor spats ensued between people already there and others trying to squeeze in and get the best view. Apparently the raised stands had been full since 5am in the morning. Evidently, this parade was a BIG deal.

In the four hours we waited for the parade to start and reach us, the Boulevard was full of vendors selling traditional Mexican treats.

Coconuts and coconut milk, 'papas' (crisps), and gelatina (jelly)
Coconuts and coconut milk, ‘papas’ (crisps), and gelatina (jelly).

In the evenings the streets of Puebla’s ‘downtown’ are full of these carts selling crisps, ‘aguas’ (fruit drinks), and jelly pots.

A wheelbarrow of amaranth.
A barrow full of happiness.

This guy is selling nuts and amaranth sweets. Amaranth was a staple grain of the Aztec era and formed an integral part of religious ceremonies and rituals (it was notoriously, but not reliably, mixed with blood for use in human sacrifice). It has a very high nutrient content and is sold in health food shops, but is more commonly mixed with honey and sugar to make candy bars that look like bird food called alegría, ‘happiness’.

Chilli Squirt!
Chilli Squirt!

Squirt is the nation’s favourite grapefruit-flavoured soft drink, pronounced ‘e-squer’. In truly Mexican style, it is served in cups ready-lined with chilli powder. “Sin chile para mi, por favor.”

The Mexican equivalent of the Horse Guards.
The Mexican equivalent of the Horse Guards.
A slight altercation.
Mexican Iron Men dealing with a slight altercation.
Yoohooo over here!
Yoohooo over here!

A TV crew arrived and the crowd got VERY excited. The people next to me started shouting, “¡tenemos una guera!” – “we have a white girl!” – to improve their chances of being filmed, hilarious!

Mexican version of our Red Arrows.
Mexican version of our Red Arrows.

To keep the baying crowds happy we were also treated to a flyover by the Mexican version of the British Red Arrows.

Finally, in the scorching midday sun, the parade got under way, and it was quite spectacular!

Valient Cinco de Mayo soldiers.
Pueblans dressed as valient Cinco de Mayo soldiers opened the procession.
Toy soldiers.
Left, right, left, right.

Armed forces marched in their hundreds.

Eagles!
Eagles!

There were more different uniforms than I could count, and various weapons, instruments and other paraphernalia, including eagles!

Trumpeting tanks.
Trumpeting tanks.
Bring in the cavalry!
Bring in the cavalry!

After all of the military forces came a whirlwind history of Mexico in the form of animated floats and reenactments.

Aztecs.
Aztecs.
Soldiers of Cholula.
Soldiers of Cholula, Puebla’s next-door neighbour.
The Great Pyramid of Cholula.
The Great Pyramid of Cholula.
The Spanish conquest.
The Spanish Conquest of the Aztec Empire, 1519.
BATALLA DE PEUBLA! And national hero Benito Juarez!
BATALLA DE PEUBLA! And national hero Benito Juárez!
Gettysburg and Abraham Lincoln.
Gettysburg and Abraham Lincoln.
Princess Carlota, and Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico and his pals about to be shot.
Princess Carlota, and Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico and pals about to be shot.
Music and dancing.
The entire procession was punctuated by music and dancing, with the soundtrack varying from the theme tune to Dad’s Army, to Rihanna and Calvin Harris’ We Found Love, and Pharrell Williams’ Happy.
¡Revolución!
¡Revolución!
Traditional Mexican costume.
Traditional Mexican costume.
Siege of the Serdán household.
Siege of the Serdán household: the Pueblans are very proud that the first shot of the Mexican Revolution was fired by Poblana (Pueblan lady) Carmen Serdán.
More colourful costumes, music and dancing.
More colourful costumes, music and dancing.
Choo chooooo.
Choo chooooo.
You go girls (just like Shania)!
You go girls (just like Shania)!
The Muralismo Movement.
The Muralismo Movement, 1920-1970.

Mexico is really famous for its murals, and Puebla is no exception. The promotion of mural painting began in the 1920s as part of an effort to reunify the country under the post-Revolution government. Painted onto public buildings, they generally had social or political messages: at a time when most of the country’s population was illiterate, they were encouraged as art for education and the bettering of the people in line with nationalist ideals. The mural-painting tradition continues to this day, and my Barrio of Xanenetla has some great examples. To see more on the murals in my area please follow this link: http://www.nileguide.com/destination/blog/puebla-mexico-74/2011/01/10/murals-in-the-xanenetla-historic-barrio/

The day was an absolute scorcher and the atmosphere was terrific. Celebrating in the history of Puebla and Mexico was very special for me, especially as an anthropologist wanting to learn as much as I can about the people, their culture and their sentiments. If there’s one thing Mexicans do really well, it’s coming together to celebrate, and it was wonderful to feel a part of that.