Pixar’s Coco is about a little boy who crosses into the colourful Land of the Dead in order to resolve a family issue. To celebrate this movie’s release, and to learn a little more about the culture behind it, I visited local makeup artist Tammy Fonseca, and had my own transformation into a Catrina.
Dia de los Muertos is a national holiday celebrated in Mexico on the first two days of November. On November 1st, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead is believed to be thinnest. It is an occasion to celebrate your dead loved ones – not a time to be sad or scared, but to be joyous, as you would be on a birthday. Families make altars called ofrendas that are decorated with marigolds, photos, and ornate sugar skulls. They might bring gifts to their loved one’s grave, basically all the deceased’s favourite stuff. If you were visiting my grave, you’d have to pay music way too loudly, and toast with extra-dry martinis in my honour. If I was visiting my grandmother’s grave, I’d wear knit slippers and say shitty things about my mom. It’s just a nice way to remember the person you loved by doing the things they loved. You laugh and tell stories and play music.
If you get dressed up, a calaca is a skeleton, a calavera is a skull, and a calavera de azucar is a sugar skull (which is a frosted, skull-shaped treat made from sugar paste and colourfully decorated). The most famous calavera of all is “La Calavera Catrina,” a high-society skeleton lady dressed in a big flower hat, from a 1910 etching by Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada. It was meant to remind us that money or no, we’re all the same in death. She has become the most iconic symbol of Dia de los Muertos. Since death is viewed not as an end but as the continuation of life, dead relatives are not mourned by celebrated. Painting your face as a calavera or catrina is a way of telling death you aren’t afraid.
This Mexican ritual is a loving tribute to their ancestors but is also an essential part of keeping the old ways alive and vibrant in their culture today. So when we watch a movie like Coco, or the similarly-themed The Book of Life, we can think about where this dazzling imagery comes from, and know that each of the bold colours in Coco’s vibrant palette means something:
Yellow – Represents the sun &unity; like in death, under the sun, we’re all the same
White – Represents spirit, hope & purity.
Red – Represents blood and life.
Purple – Represents mourning, grief and suffering.
Pink – Represents happiness.
A face with lots of purples may therefore be a tribute to someone more recently passed, or gone too soon, whereas a face of pink might mean that their loved one’s suffering is alleviated in death and the family is ready to celebrate and honour their life’s accomplishments.
Tammy is an accomplished makeup artist who got her start studying architecture. Now she draws blueprints of faces before she begins painting them. It took her 2.5 hours to paint mine.
Tammy has been making people beautiful for a long time but started painting skulls when she was inspired by an episode of American Horror Story (The Walking Dead has also inspired her – guess what else she paints?). Aside from your typical horror, she’d love to get her hands on a comic book movie to really make her mark, and her dream is to work on a Cirque du Soleil production.
Tammy’s favourite celebrity makeup looks are Kate Winslet and Liz Taylor. A lover of art, she of course finds inspiration all around her, and when I asked about the temporary nature of her work, she was nonplussed: “people and bodies are my canvasses.” True, and yet I felt true sorrow when I watched it rinse down the drain of my shower. Her work has been featured in Imira and Luxe Ottawa Magazine. She looks to beauty bigwigs Lisa Elbridge, Vanessa Davis, and Argeni Pinal for inspiration.
I was really pleased to have met Tammy and to experience what it’s like to sit in the makeup chair and become someone else. Now it looks like I belong in the world of Coco, which is out in theatres this week. Feel like seeing how the sausage is made? You can watch a slideshow here.