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Who is La Catrina?

One of the most recognized figures spotted during any Día de los Muertos celebration is that of Catrina. She's the tall female skeleton wearing lots of color and a fancy hat. Her origins go back deep into Mexican traditions. 

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Everywhere you look on the streets during Day of the Dead celebrations across Latin America, a familiar face looks back. A face that juxtaposes the macabre and the elegant, it's in the makeup on children's faces, the elaborate dress of the women, in the celebratory 'bread of the dead' and in every shop window selling souvenirs and emblems of this uniquely atmospheric festival.

This face has a definite aesthetic: a skull, wearing a much-embroidered bonnet resplendent with flowers. This is La Calavera Catrina – the ‘elegant skull’ – often simply La Catrina. And however superficially festive it may appear, La Catrina's presence throughout Mexico's Day of the Dead mythology makes a much deeper statement of mortality, destiny and the societal divisions of class.

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The Dame of the Dead
La Catrina was not Latin America’s first grand lady of the afterlife. This honour belongs to Mictēcacihuātl – the queen of the Aztec underworld of Chicunamictlan. Her role was to watch over the bones of the dead, and her presence was front-and-centre during any recognition of those who had passed on.

And where had those souls passed to? The belief amongst the Mesoamericans was that the dead make a journey that descends nine levels to the depths of Chicunamictlan. The ancients' view of death was not a mournful one: they saw it as a part of the cycle of life, and celebrated the departed by leaving offerings on makeshift altars, or ofrendas, that would assist them in their onward trials.

These ofrendas continue to be associated with Day of the Dead, which over the centuries also absorbed pagan and Catholic celebration customs – including the dates of the festival straddling both All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day and All Soul's Day. But the defining image of the modern festival would come later – and from an unexpected source.

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