The author's finished doll.
The author’s finished doll. Ariel Sophia-Bardi

With her lipsticked leer, painted eye sockets, and feathered hat, La Catrina is the reigning queen of Día de Muertos—the Day of the Dead.

Throughout Mexico City, the fashionable skeleton makes multiple appearances. In the district of Roma, La Catrina pops up, in a flash of color, on the wall of a taquería-packed street corner. Head to the Museo Mural Diego Rivera to see the grande dame draped in a serpent-shaped boa, posed next to Frida Kahlo. Tostitos has even debuted a La Catrina chip package.

And now, you can develop your own take on La Catrina in a new Day of the Dead-themed crafts workshop. “There is no Día de Muertos without Catrina,” says the 45-year-old crafts specialist Azucena Mendoza, sitting on her sun-drenched rooftop in Mexico City. The former TV reporter, once an anchor with Televisa, retired from journalism eight years ago. As part of a new side business, she started studying, making, and selling Mexican handicrafts. This past year, she added La Catrina doll-making classes to her list of offerings.

The figurines are crafted using cartonería, a regional cardboard-based handicraft similar to papier-mâché. Most revelers in Mexico make La Catrina dolls ahead of the main Day of the Dead events on November 2, but the workshop is available year-round.

<em>Calavera de la Catrina (Skull of the Female Dandy),</em> by José Guadalupe Posada, circa 1910.
Calavera de la Catrina (Skull of the Female Dandy), by José Guadalupe Posada, circa 1910. Public domain

As a reporter, Mendoza used to shoot Day of the Dead news stories in San Andres Mixquic, home to one of the city’s largest cemeteries—and host to fervent celebrations. It was in interviewing local artisans that she got her first crash course in popular art traditions.

“I thought, ‘I’d love to do something like this,’” Mendoza says. “So I just started learning about the techniques that I liked.”

I wanted to try my hand at sculpting my own Day of the Dead altarpiece, so I joined Mendoza for a three-hour lesson. We met at her home in San Juan in Mixcoac, a tranquil, church-filled enclave in the otherwise frenetic Mexican capital.

Before we got our hands dirty, I got a primer in La Catrina’s history. However synonymous with Day of the Dead, the skull-faced beauty only dates back about a century. In 1910, foreshadowing the Mexican Revolution, the Mexico City-based printmaker Jose Guadeloupe Posada published a satirical sketch that skewered the insouciance of the upper-classes. The illustration, meant to depict a cold-as-death aristocratic woman, decked out in Western-style finery, later melded with other cultural traditions in Mexico, including a playful acceptance of mortality.

“We like laughing,” Mendoza says, “and we love laughing at tragedy.”

The figurines are crafted using <em>cartonería</em>, a regional cardboard-based handicraft similar to papier-mâché.
The figurines are crafted using cartonería, a regional cardboard-based handicraft similar to papier-mâché. Ariel Sophia-Bardi

In the sprawling craft markets of La Ciudadela and El Bazaar Sabado, that quirky sense of humor is out in full force. Between bright, patterned textiles and Frida Kahlo magnets, the shelves are stocked with wooden Day of the Dead-themed dioramas. The tiny scenes feature painted miniatures carved from clay: dapper skeletons shooting pool, using skulls in lieu of balls; a red, long-tailed devil chatting up a pretty skeleton in a shimmering gown. Some even feature captions, where the punchlines are more overt. “Alcoholicos Anonimos,” reads one, above a pair of skeletons clutching brown beer bottles and passed out in a park, then continues in Spanish, “But why anonymous if everyone knows them?”

Turning to the doll, Mendoza and I sculpted a simple wire armature to make the torso and the head, and then another for the two arms. She showed me how to stuff aluminum foil around the frame to give the effect of a full, billowing skirt. “Here’s where the fun comes,” Mendoza added, taking out a box of paper scraps and a jar of homemade paste.

According to Cesáreo Moreno, chief curator of visual arts at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, Illinois, la cartonería first developed because cardboard was already a cheap and abundant material to work with. “Mexicanos have always been naturally great recyclers,” Moreno says. “Of images, of materials—you name it.” Now one of Mexico’s most popular handicrafts, it can be seen in toys, masks, festival decorations, and—perhaps most famously abroad—the piñata.

Appropriately, La Catrina itself is a recycled image—first a protest against the extravagance of the elites, and now a Day of the Dead staple. The versatile materials used in La Catrina doll-making also emphasize the ephemerality of the creations. Mendoza, for instance, reuses her children’s schoolbooks. “But only the old ones,” she assured me.

With the doll’s frame in place, I added layers of gooey paper. Each scrap was glazed in a glue made from boiling, and then refrigerating, a mix of one part flour and two parts water, which can be stored for about two weeks. As the outer layer dried, I molded a white skeletal head from air-drying clay, then gouged out two eye sockets.

The day before, at the Templo Mayor, the Aztec pyramid that lies in partial ruins in the Old City, I got an eyeful of skeletal imagery at the on-site museum. A tzompantli, or Mesoamerican display rack, showed rows and rows of real sacrificial skulls. A life-sized sculpture of Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of death, revealed a male form with ribs and organs exposed. Spotlit behind glass cases, other human skulls had been adorned with shells and pyrite stones into grinning, cartoon-eyed masks.

Day of the Dead decorative boxes in the Popular Arts Museum (left); pre-Hispanic skulls from the Templo Mayor museum (right).
Day of the Dead decorative boxes in the Popular Arts Museum (left); pre-Hispanic skulls from the Templo Mayor museum (right). Ariel Sophia-Bardi

Though they might seem macabre, the repurposed bones point to a unique metaphysics. “There’s this whole cosmic understanding of life and death as being one and the same, not the opposite,” says Moreno.

When the Spanish conquistadors locked horns with indigenous leaders, a syncretic, both Catholic and pre-Hispanic, worldview was established, in which death was honored and celebrated. Though the Day of the Dead might represent the “quintessential celebration” of this worldview, says Moreno, the same attitudes and imagery persist in Mexican culture year-round: “Death is not something that is only relegated to wakes and funerals, but rather, every day.”

And above all, adds Moreno, “when Mexicans look at death, we can’t help but somehow end on a humorous note.”

With this lightheartedness in mind, I began tracing little flowers along my doll’s colorless cheekbones. I painted her skirt and bodice in a bright azur. “Frida Kahlo blue,” said Mendoza approvingly. For the details, she instructed me to use a toothpick in lieu of a paintbrush, a technique popularized by artisans of alebrijes, the fantastical, intricately decorated creatures sculpted from either paper, cardboard, or wood.

“You can make little dots, or a line with dots around it, and just keep adding to it. That’s the way to start,” Mendoza said. Though Mexico boasts many acclaimed cartonería masters, the forms are forgiving enough for beginners. For Mendoza, “It depends more on your creativity than your technique.”

The base for author's doll (left); Mendoza holding a doll that the author made (right)
The base for author’s doll (left); Mendoza holding a doll that the author made (right) Ariel Sophia-Bardi

Raised in Chihuahua, close to the border with the United States, the former TV anchor grew up with Halloween, not Día de Muertos. But when she moved to Mexico City for work and began seeing the Day of the Dead altars, “It was like a flash,” Mendoza says, “and I never had decorations for Halloween again.”

Unlike the ghosts and ghouls of Halloween, however, the Day of the Dead serves a higher purpose. In highlighting the liminality between the living and the dead, the festival nurtures a connection with lost loved ones. “If you truly believe that, it’s comforting,” says Mendoza.

By the time our three hours ended, I was still deep into fussing with my doll’s lacy boa and wide-brimmed cap. “You can never end. You can keep adding, and adding, and adding,” Mendoza said at the close of the workshop.

Just like our earthly cycles of existence, the creation of a La Catrina figurine is potentially infinite. It seemed a pretty fitting metaphor for the culture that first inspired—and keeps renewing—the dapper queen of death.