Eight Feet of Empowerment

Hendersonville artist makes largest La Catrinas in U.S.

It takes artist Margarita Figueroa months to create each figure.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

Hola Carolina, a WNC nonprofit devoted to promotion of Latinx culture, has found a larger-than-life way to honor the dead. For the Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) holiday, which is now observed worldwide during late October and early November, the nonprofit organization will exhibit La Catrinas in Hendersonville. These tall, vividly dressed and decorated dolls are the mixed-media sculptural constructions of renowned artist Margarita Figueroa, who explains their colorful history in the context of events leading to the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910.

“Impoverished indigenous women could be seen wearing these elegant, fancy dresses while selling produce in the streets,” she says through an interpreter. “They couldn’t afford them, but the rich women gave them to them as used clothes. An artist [José Guadalupe Posada] painted an image of them to make a political statement [about the wealth gap]. Later the prominent artist Diego Rivera incorporated that image, which he named Catrina, into one of his prominent murals, at the National Palace in Mexico City.”

La Catrinas are painted with a skull replacing the face, symbolizing the fact that death is the great equalizer. “These women were dying of hunger,” Figueroa points out, “but in these expensive dresses.” The mural shined a spotlight on this disparity, and other artists created their own interpretations of La Catrina, perpetuating the image as a form of protest in support of equality and the empowerment of indigenous women.

Photo by Rachel Pressley

The dolls were exhibited last fall at Wortham Center for the Performing Arts in Asheville, and Figueroa is always working on new ones, continuing the tradition as she constructs her La Catrinas from a variety of materials, including papier-mâché handmade from old newspapers.“Everything is recycled,” she says, “and mine are quite large, some eight feet tall, which is not very common. I don’t know of anyone else in the United States who does it in these sizes, and it takes a long time, almost four months to make each one. You have to construct one layer at a time and let each layer dry completely being doing another. Otherwise the paper will sprout mushrooms!” 

Her favorite part of the process is painting the figures and giving each one a different expression. “I don’t plan how they look — it just reflects my inspiration that day. It comes in the moment, guided by my feelings until the magic appears.”

Figueroa is also known for her magically intricate miniature La Catrinas, which are set in tiny, fully decorated handmade dollhouse rooms. “They have so much detail you cannot imagine,” proclaims Adriana Chavela, director of Hola Carolina. “Tiny tacitos,  little bitty apples and eggs, little kitchens and bars, miniature doctors and lawyers, cats and dogs. You have to see them to believe it.”

Each of Figueroa’s large works is also meticulously crafted, with exacting measurements. Otherwise the structure will fall apart. She thanks each Catrina for the opportunity to enjoy sharing her art and using the Catrinas to showcase her culture and educate others. “It’s nothing dark or to be scared of,” she insists. “It is about celebrating powerful women and their culture, and encouraging them to follow their dreams with confidence. I feel very fortunate to be able to do this, and am already working on a new collection for next year.”

Margarita Figueroa’s La Catrinas live at the Hola Cultural Center, 801 Fourth Ave. East, Hendersonville. For more information, visit the group’s website, www.holacommunityarts.org, or call (828) 989-2745.

Figueroa’s Las Catrinas are on exhibit in the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts lobby, Oct. 21 – Nov. 2, 2020, at 18 Biltmore Ave. in downtown Asheville. Self-guided, physically distanced tours are available with safety procedures enforced. Suggested donation of $5 per guest; private tours for groups also available. Reserve a tour at worthamarts.org or by calling 828-257-4530. Walk-ins are also welcome.

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