Saturday, March 30, 2013

Artistic Representations of La Catrina: Repurposing Rhetoric

In Mexican culture, images of calaveras (skulls) function as signifiers of the honored dead, celebrated in La Dia de los Muertes (the Day of the Dead) celebrations. The importance of skull imagery first resonated with me during a month I spent in Oaxaca in 2007. A spring break trip to Puerto Vallarta gave me an epiphany about La Catrina, a creation of Mexican Artist Jose Guadalupe Posada.

First, a bit of history about La Catrina:

Posada created skull imagery as a form of social satire, specifically as a way to comment on Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz's socially repressive, corrupt, and extravagant government. Both Diaz and his wife were obsessed with "all things European." Ultimately, the concentration of wealth among the few and the repression of the many led to Profirio's overthrow and the Mexican Revolution of 1911.

The image of La Calaveras Catrina appeared in satirical cartoons in newspapers and magazines and resonated with the Mexican people as critical of the government, and specifically Diaz's wife, Carmen Romero Rubio, who often wore large hats such as the one La Catrina is wearing above. As an article in the San Francisco Chronicle notes:

Posada's illustrations brought the stories of the day to the illiterate majority of impoverished Mexicans, both expressing and spreading the prevailing disdain for Porfirio's regime...Posada's calaveras--La Catrina above all, caricaturizing [sic] a high society lady as a skeleton wearing only a fancy French-style hat--became a sort of satirical obituary for the privileged class. But his Catrina cast a wider net: His original name for her, "La Calavera Garbancera," used a term that in his day referred to native Mexicans who scorned their culture and tried to pass as European.

Just as La Catrina now resonates on a plethora of levels, Carmen Romero Rubio, by some accounts, worked diligently on behalf of Mexico's poor children. She, like the La Catrina image, is enigmatic.

When I look at La Catrina in her many incarnations--doctor, nurse, high-society dame, and even Frida Kahlo--I see the faces of many and not the visage of just one. This reading honors Mexican traditions of honoring the dead and remembering history, regardless of social status. Posada, after all, isn't the first to use skulls in artistic and rhetorical ways. The icon hearkens back to the Aztecs.

The Epiphany

The image of a skull suggests anonymity. As Mexican culture articulates, death is a great equalizer, and identity is masked when all one sees is a skull. This is what made La Catrina such a powerful tool for the satirist whose mode of criticism was a couture-clad woman's skull.

As I shopped in Puerto Vallarta, I naturally found myself drawn to the beauty and grotesqueness (in the literary sense) of La Catrina and began searching for a teacher Catrina. I wanted a calavera that symbolizes the evolution of teaching, its past, present, and future, an image that embodies myself and my colleagues. I found none.

Happily, an artist in one shop agreed to alter one of the Catrina dolls and create a teacher. Originally, she was a nurse dressed all in white and holding a medical bag.

The reimagined Catrina shows a professionally dressed woman holding a book and pen. Her left breast pocket contains additional pens. Importantly, she is anonymous, and because she is a skeleton, she is also iconic.

I see her the rhetorical embodiment of many ideas about teaching that now confound me and cause me anguish. She honors the teaching profession and mourns for it, too. She reminds me of why I love teaching but anxiously count the time remaining in my career. She represents all teaching has been and now is in our world of standardization of curriculum that emphasizes test prep and marginalizes artistic expression.

Standing beside the teacher Catrina is La Catrina bird lady. I call her La Catrina pseudo ed reformer, [insert name of any profiteering ed reformer here]. She could be any one of many obsessed with all things grounded in profiting from public schools, from Pearson to the Smarter Balanced Consortium, to Students First, to numerous others who like La Catrina bird lady cage common little birds who symbolized the suffering and repressed citizens of Mexico during Porfirio's dictatorship and who are now the children caged in test-prep driven school cultures.

Just as the original La Catrina depicted poor Mexicans who wished to appear rich and European, my reimagined Catrina bird lady represents the class of pseudo ed-reformers who pose as educational experts but who know little about students or schools. Like the invisible social classes in Porfirio's Mexico, students and teachers are too often invisible in discussions about education.

The rhetoric of art articulates the multi-faceted and ever-changing role of teaching. This is why La Catrina speaks so eloquently to me and why I officially adopt La Catrina teacher as my visage.

*Note: In my haste, I forgot to check the spelling of Frida Kahlo's name and also transposed a couple of letters in Porfirio Diaz's name; I made corrections at 10:00 a.m. MST, 4-1-2013)

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