One of the most iconic aspects of the Día de Muertos celebrations in Mexico—alongside the assembled altars, fresh-baked pan de muerto, and sugar skulls—is the recurring image of La Calavera Catrina. A veritable grande dame of death, Catrina is always impeccably dressed, sometimes in a lace wedding gown, sometimes in a colorful, corseted floor-length dress. She often wears a fur stole, and dons a wide-brimmed hat adorned with piles of flowers or towering feathers. Her face is always fixed in a grin that seems jeering, if not straight up maniacal—an impression that is no doubt enhanced by her lack of lips, or even skin.
Catrina is one of many calaveras, or skulls, that exuberantly symbolize Mexico’s annual festivities in celebration of the life of the dead. When I visited Mexico City during the last weekend of October, Catrina could be found peering out from behind confectionary counters, encased in museum glass, lined up in plastic replicas on the sidewalks, and floating down Paseo de la Reforma, in Mexico City’s second annual Día de Muertos parade. Yet before Catrina became a poster girl for one of Mexico’s most unique and renowned traditions, she was the invention of José Guadalupe Posada, a printmaker and engraver whose legacy looms large over the country’s rich art and design history. And in Posada’s hands, Catrina was not an icon for Día de Muertos—she was a piece of political satire during a particularly calamitous time of Mexican history.
At the turn of the 20th century, Mexico was under the reign of Porfirio Díaz, a dictator whose efforts to modernize and bring financial stability to the country were made at the considerable cost of government repression, corruption, and unchecked extravagance for the wealthy few. In 1910, the Mexican Revolution ended Díaz’s 35-year regime and began almost a full decade of ousted leaders, political unrest, and guerrilla warfare. Posada, who died in 1913, is best known as a pre-Revolutionary artist, whose prints satirized Díaz and the European influences he promoted before the country revolted. In penny broadsheets, revolutionary newspapers, and inexpensive literature read by the working poor, Posada mocked the bourgeois by drawing them as calaveras: the feeble dead pretentiously posturing as the luxurious living, clad in European clothes, their hypocrisy and vanity undeniable. Posada had a knack for mixing acerbic critique with accessible humor, which made his political cartoons wildly popular among the proletariat.
Catrina came into being shortly before Posada’s death, and was printed by the publisher Antonio Vanegas Arroyo, where Posada was chief artist and printmaker. Wearing only her signature plumed hat, Catrina mocked Mexican women who tried to erase their indigenous heritage by wearing French-style clothes and makeup to appear whiter. Years later, her cavernous eye sockets and pale face would be annually painted onto the faces of people celebrating Día de Muertos, with the famous black-and-white makeup, intricate face paint designs, and colorful marigolds. But at the time she was originally printed, she was just one of Posadas many satirical calaveras.
Catrina had her first brush with widespread fame in 1947, when Diego Rivera made her the central figure of his mural Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Central Park. The painting, which today is housed in a dedicated museum in said park, is a crowded tableau featuring the most prominent figures of recent Mexican history, including Díaz, Emiliano Zapata, Frida Kahlo, and of course Catrina—dressed to kill in a feathered rattlesnake stole and makeup painted across her boney face. She’s flanked on either side by an adolescent Rivera and an adult Posada. Rivera was a massive fan of Posada’s, who he became acquainted with after the latter moved from Aguascalientes to Mexico City in 1888, and set up his printmaking studio in a city storefront. Rivera and the painter José Clemente Orozco would line up among the school children to watch him work through the street-level window. Unlike Rivera and many of the other Mexican artists at the time who left Mexico during Díaz’s dictatorship to study art in Europe, Posada had lived his entire life in Mexico, and his style, the folk subjects in his prints, and the revolutionary nature of his work were firmly rooted in the country he called home. As Rivera once commented, “Posada was so outstanding that one day even his name may be forgotten. He was so closely associated with the spirit of the Mexican people that he may end up as just an abstraction.”
Rivera’s words may have turned out to be prophetic for much of the world outside of Mexico, but within the country Posada is still very much a household name. Most know him equally as the master designer of Catrina and the calaveras, and as the pre-revolutionary political cartoonist who became the country’s “father of printmaking.” Posada started his career at 16 as an apprentice for a lithography studio in the central Mexican city of Aguascalientes, which he eventually took over. He began his caricatures with local politicians there, until a flood in the city prompted his relocation to Mexico City. Throughout his career, he experimented with engraving, lithography, and zinc etching, using the skills and ingenuity of his printing practice to produce the graphics that would eventually aid in mobilizing the people of Mexico to action. His illustrations were featured in the newspaper La Patria Ilustrada (edited by Octavio Paz’s grandfather), the magazine El Jicote, and El Hijo del Ahuizote, and play significantly into Mexico’s long history of revolutionary broadsides and publications.
It’s uncertain how exactly Catrina became so instrumentally a part of Día de Muertos, though it’s clear Rivera’s embrace of Catrina was a big part of it. In Mexico, the celebration of Día de Muertos has its roots in Aztec customs; the ancient people’s skull racks, or tzompantli, certainly have at least superficial resemblance to today’s sugar skulls. After the Spanish colonized, the Aztec “Days of the dead,” revolving around harvests, were merged, more or less, with Spanish All Saints’ Day. By the time of the Porfiriato, when Posada was living, the Porfirian elite had tried to distance themselves from the celebrations, instead ignoring the regional festivities for more modern pursuits like taking vacation by railway.
Nevertheless, the holiday persisted: today, Día de Muertos, celebrated in the weeks surrounding November 2nd, is the time of year that Mexicans assemble colorful shrines to loved ones, and honor the dead with food an festivities. It showcases Mexico’s admirable attitude toward making light in the face of death. It also brings in thousands of tourists into the country each year, and takes on a large commercial significance—as seen in the Día de Muertos merchandise and pastries; the popular James Bond scene that drew attention to the holiday in 2015; and the subsequent enactment of the Día de Muertos parade in Mexico City. Posada’s calaveras images still connects the holiday to the Aztec-era stone skulls and its decidedly pre-Columbian roots, while also providing a resonate symbol of the tradition to the rest of the world.
There’s no more iconic of a figure to Día de Muertos than Catrina, the brainchild of a satirical printmaker, and now a reminder of the tradition of Mexico’s unique intimacy and peace with death. With his cheaply printed, skillfully made political cartoons, Posada left both a legacy of revolutionary graphics and printing methods, as well as a distinctly political sign of the equality of men on earth, through images of the dead. In her French attire and ridiculously decorated hat, La Catrina represents both of those things. Though skeletal in appearance, the woman contains multitudes.