Victor Valera: Playing with Death

Victor Valera’s life-sized skeletons or “Catrinas” invite us to laugh with death. Made of papier mâché, wood, and used clothing and accessories, Valera’s sculptures can sit, stand, and even dance with the right partner. “They are always happy,” Valera says. “You see that my catrinas are smiling. No one is scary. I’m trying to make smiling everyone.”

Valera, a self-taught artist, started making the catrinas in 2007, inspired by the art and traditions of Central Mexico. “When I was in the university instead of going home to my [parents] I went to central Mexico. And I had some kind of attraction to the celebration. I saw in Michoacan and in Guanajuato they were celebrating this same thing with the catrinas.” The whimsical sculptures represent a north-of-the border incarnation of the icons found in the Day of the Dead celebrations that originated in central Mexico and have spread elsewhere via the “Mexican diaspora.”

Valera takes also inspiration from the original “Catrina,” born in an etching by Mexican printmaker and illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada and reproduced in a leaflet (c. 1910) called La Calavera Garbancera. Posada’s image depicts a calavera (skull) wearing an elegant hat, the style worn by European aristocracy of the time. The image depicted and satirized the phenomenon of indigenous Mexicans dressing up to imitate French styles and wearing makeup to lighten the their complexions.

Later, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera included Posada’s image in his mural Sunday Evening’s Dream and gave her the name “Catrina,” a slang word for uppity or wealthy people. The image has since become the iconic symbol for the Día de los Muertos celebrations every November in Mexico and beyond.

Originally from Sinaloa, Mexico, Valera has lived in Nogales, Arizona for 30 years. He has worked as a math teacher for Cochise College and taught at Nogales High School. Prior to coming to the United States, he taught engineering at the university level in Mexico. He has displayed his creations at the Pimería Alta Historical Society in Nogales, Arizona and at Fiesta de Tumacácori at Tumacácori National Historical Park in Tubac.

One of Valera’s catrinas is of his late mother, which he dressed in clothing and accessories similar to what she once wore. He has also created catrinas of George Bush, Elvis Presley, and Frida Kahlo, and received commissions to create Uncle Sam and John Lennon.  He welcomes commissions for personal catrinas of loved ones who have passed. “Bring the shoes, the dress, anything that you want to be placed with it,” he says.

Valera says the process of making catrinas helps him connect to his culture, and he hopes to someday teach others how to make them. “I would like to teach how to make them because this is something that is going to be part of the enjoyment or happiness. Because this is part of the culture. This is culture,” Valera says.  Valera said he recently cured his own prostate cancer with herbs. He says he does not fear death. “It is one step that everybody, we need to take. So we are not afraid. In my person, I’m not afraid. If my line is going to be, let’s say, by tomorrow, what can we do? So I need to live before that happens, before we hit that line.”