LA CATRINA DAY OF THE DEAD
Without doubt, one of the most fascinating expressions of Mexican folk art is known as “La Catrina”...
Without doubt, one of the most fascinating expressions of Mexican folk art is known as “La
Catrina”. Yes, as the article “la” from the Spanish language hints, we are talking of a very specific
and most peculiar woman, here. She is a femme-fatale. A character associated with Death.
The coming of La Catrina as a celebrity had to do with her, of course, supernatural luck of
having had two of Mexico’s finest artists in her marketing team -so to speak-, that captured its
existing popularity in Mexican folk in the second half of the 19th century and catapulted it to
stardom in the first half of the 20th century: Jose Guadalupe Posada and Diego Rivera.
Nowadays, La Catrina makes its public appearance every year, usually in October, as it gets
summoned by folk tradition in the form of drawings, paintings, sculptures, costumes and many
other art representations, for the “Día de Muertos” (Day of the Dead) , a very unique
Mexican celebration, in November first and second.
But La Catrina is not only a character. It is actually one of the most insightful doorways into
Mexican thought and culture, where death is seen as a continuos with life. Being Mexican has
to do with how this concept was assimilated as our modern society itself was forming. La
Catrina is an icon of Mexican modern culture.
Upon the shoulders of this sometimes daringly well dressed skeleton of La Catrina, rest
thousands of years of history, native pre-hispanic, Spanish colonial, the XIX century
modernisation and all the way up to our contemporary culture. Even our current adaptations
in death’s latest playwright taking place in the very last years of a bullet-ridden drug war, have
to do with her evolving depiction. Quite a role for such a light bony character, would you not
say? Yet, “she’s still standing”.
So where did the Catrina come from and why is it such a Mexican tradition?
La Calavera Garbancera
“Las que hoy son empolvadas garbanceras pararán en deformes calaveras”.
Those who are all powdered Garbanceras, their days will end in contorted skeletons.
“Hay hermosas garbanceras,
de corsé y alto tacón;
pero han de ser calaveras,
calaveras del montón.”
Her best known portrayal is shown in the image. It is that of the skeleton of a high society
lady with hat and feathers, that became widely popular from the drawings, engravings and
lithographies that the artist José Guadalupe Posada did on the character since 1910, as the
Mexican Revolution unfolded.
Posada named this particular 1912 drawing “La Calavera Garbancera”. It was meant as an
irony of those mestizo ladies that sold chickpeas (garbanzos) in the streets, an ordinary trade,
but that still dressed-up in the fanciest of clothes of the time, emulating and aspiring to be
high-society women in French fashion style. They would also complain of their country, their
native heritage and of their own culture, in denial of who they really were: just common
For the working class, their looks and aspirations betrayed their ideals of a nation being
formed by the people and for the people and, worst, visually substituted what being Mexican
was. High society and political ruling class fashion and preferred culture of the time,
considered the French as a model.
The sheet metal engraving with “La Calavera Garbancera”, was inked for the first time in 1913
and prints were made at the well known graphics works of Antonio Vanegas and widely
circulated in the form of posters or single page newspaper-like prints. Ironically, Posada himself
died in late January of that same year.
Posada was a man close to the working class. his work played a similar role than that of
Honoré Daumier for his merciless satire of bourgeois life, Aubrey Beardsley who illustrated
Oscar Wilde's Salomé, and political cartoonists as Herbert Block (Herblock) who took on
McCarthyism and Stalinism.
Posada had been doing illustrations and political caricature for several years. In 1872 his satires
had already caused him trouble and he had had to fled his hometown Aguascalientes. From
his engraving atelier in Leon he arrived to Mexico City in 1887 and was the head artist at the
Antonio Vanegas press that produced inexpensive literature for the working classes, where he
made thousands of illustrations. He collaborated with many combat newspapers of the time,
more like planflets or posters, both with his art as well as editorial content that he prepared
with writer Manuel Manilla and poet Constancio Suarez and that were published by such
papers as "Argos", "La Patria", "El Ahuizote" and "El Hijo del Ahuizote", where they would
oppose the current government run by Porfirio Díaz. According to Gerardo Murillo “Dr. Atl”
famous mexican landscapes painter, writer and political figure, in his Mexican Folk Art book
published in 1921, these one-page newspapers or posters were bought and distributed by an
army of “voceadores” (from “voz”, Spanish for voice) that voiced, preached and sang the verses
aloud in the streets and earned money selling the prints. A very unique, even theatrical
scenery if you visualize it.
Posada’s “Calavera Garbancera” was part of a series of illustrations by Posada and of many
other artists, that were being printed and distributed with articles in verse that voiced the
protest of Mexico’s working people against the ruling political class, in times of increasing
contrasts, that finally led to social unrest and the Revolution itself. These expressions of art
formed part of a whole school of thought that was asking for a social change.
There was no “Catrina” until about 30 years after Posada’s death. This happened later in our
history, when Diego Rivera, - a painter and icon of the making of our modern Mexico -,
influenced by Posada’s work painted the famous “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the
Alameda Central” in a mural. It was done between the years 1946 and 1947.
In it, Rivera depicted himself as a pug-faced child, and stood with Frida Kahlo, just to the right
side of a Posada’s inspired “Calavera Garbancera”, which had her hat and feathers, but for the
first time is shown in full body and dressed-up in fine clothes. To her left, Rivera paints Posada.
Diego Rivera names her good looking character “La Catrina” for the first time ever. The name
comes from the Spanish language term Catrín, referred to a well dressed and embellished
gentleman, usually escorted by a woman of same characteristics; a classical scene of Mexican
aristocracy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
It is from time on, that La Catrina is catapulted to fame.
Posada’s influence can also be traced to the work of artists like José Luis Orozco, Leopoldo
Méndez (see People’s Graphic Workshop 1937), Francisco Díaz de León and Francisco
Toledo, among others.
La Catrina part two