Among the Catalan traditions that surprised me during the year I lived in Barcelona (2004), was the Caganer (literally translates: pooper, defecator), a popular icon that multiplies during Christmas times. I remember visiting the Christmas market of Santa Llucia, and being introduced by my office colleagues to the little statue of a peasant (payés catalán) with the legs bended, a red hat, a black pipe, a white shirt opened, black pants down, a visible buttocks, and a piece of fecal matter next to his feet. This figurine is known as the Caganer and is usually made in clay. One of my colleagues, Maria, bought one for me and told me that I had to place it in the “pesebre” or “belén” (Nativity scene). Although I was used to the creation of “pesebres” during my childhood in Bogotá, I never saw such a unique character. Maria explained to me that the Caganer is usually hidden in the Nativity scene, close to the place where baby Jesus is located.
Today, while having a breakfast with some friends in Austin, I heard about the Caganer again. Matt, a friend from Toledo, Ohio, asked to a couple of visiting scientists from Barcelona if they had brought the Caganer for building a Nativity scene in their apartment. The Spanish couple said that unfortunately they didn’t bring any Caganer to the USA. Matt, started to talk about how funny and unique was the Caganer, and pointed out how the different kinds of impersonations of the figure had become popular around the world. The Spanish researchers were not surprised by that commentary, and enjoyed talking about the different public figures that have become “Caganers” and are sold at the souvenirs shops and artisan markets. They showed to me in one of their phones some images of the different iterations of the figurine. Celebrities, comic book heroes, musicians, politicians, actors, animation characters, and all kind of popular icons, from different cultures, have become the subjects of a Caganer-like representation. Cultural entrepreneurs are selling them not only in the Christmas markets of Catalunya, but also all year around on the Internet, in what it seems to be a global marketing hit.
For instance, there is a Hello Kitty Caganer that is perfect mash up of a Japannese and Catalan popular culture idols. A redundancy of the kitsch.
Likewise, there is an Elvis Caganer that mashes up the American King of rock and roll with the Catalan peasant.
There is also a kind of international politics satire emerging from the remixability of the Caganer. National presidents and international leaders such as Barak Obama, Cesar Chavez, Hillary Clinton, the Pope, and Fidel Castro, are some of the politicians that have been recreated in the form of the infamous Catalan character.
The transformation of the Caganer into a global phenomenon is interesting from a cultural and aesthetic perspective. On the one hand, it reveals how cultural icons and mythologies are being remixed wildly and fluently nowadays, without fears of preservation and purism. On the other, it reminds us of the power of the carnivalesque, grotesque, and vulgar as a source of humor and laugh. The Caganer, as a popular culture icon, comes from a tradition that is earthy and lowbrow. As a matter of fact, the original Caganer is a peasant, is a human being close to the labors of earth. The gesture he is making becomes comical because it is revealing the usually hidden aspects of bourgeois and civilized everyday life, because it is showing the lower parts of the body, and because it is displaying the inappropriate feces (a turd). However, that gesture and action are universally human. Everybody poops, everybody defecates. When the public personalities and idols from different cultures and countries assume the Caganer posture and shape, they are pulled down from the altitudes of stardom and high politics, they are grounded to earth. This revelation invites people to laugh.