Written by Susanna Brooks, Director of Learning Innovation, for our exhibition, Images of Resilience: Chicana/o Art & its Mexican Roots
A wide-eyed lady skeleton donning a large, lace brimmed hat festooned with flowers and feathers flashes a broad toothy grin. The smiling dandified dame is La Calavera Catrina, a corpse with a lively aristocratic air and fashionable dress to match. Oblivious to the current state of her demise, she clutches nonchalantly to her long lost human existence. When artist, illustrator, and satirist José Guadalupe Posada (1852 – 1913) created this droll caricature, the Mexican revolution was in full swing. For Posada and his countless disenfranchised countrymen and women, champions of the rebellion, the humorous image of La Calavera Catrina symbolically, and derisively, served as an epitaph for the wealthy privileged classes. Her stylish appearance and amusing, naïve sensibility endeared her to the disgruntled masses, and she quickly became a satirical emblem of the sins of vanity and greed and the folly of government corruption that had long held sway over Mexico’s impoverished, hard-working citizens.
La Calavera Catrina was among the first of many animated skeleton characters Posada created to populate his tongue-in-cheek, pro-revolutionary broadsheet illustrations, and the most popular and enduring. The chic, chapeau-wearing lady skull became a kind of national folk icon. While Posada’s myriad skull figures cleverly and comically mocked the social and political venality of the time, La Calavera Catrina took center stage and led a nationalistic parade celebrating the tiny sliver of thread that holds sway over life and death. With La Calavera Catrina at the helm, Posada’s charming corpses wittily danced and sang their way into the hearts of Mexico’s working-classes, taking a prominent place on altars during Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festivities. It would be popularly understood that these whimsical animated skeletons occupied a surreal space between life and death. Their message espousing that no matter how much wealth and power human beings strive to achieve during their brief worldly existence, all that they chased and acquired was meaningless in the afterlife. Rich or poor, all people meet death equally and alone.
The Origin of La Calavera Catrina
When Posada conceived his elegant skull lady he named her La Calavera Garbancera, a derogatory term for Mexicans who rejected their indigenous roots and passed themselves off as hailing solely from European pedigree. For poor, indigenous Mexicans repressed by President Porfirio Diaz’ regime, La Calavera Garbancera both eased and stirred their disdain for the rampant political greed and oppression that blanketed the working class backbone of the country. Under the prolonged presidency of Porfirio Diaz (1830 – 1915), a term he held for thirty-five years, the Mexican government basked in fields of wealth alongside the privileged landowners they helped grow at the expense of the farmworkers, which delved deeper into poverty and despair. The vast social class divisions and unfair distribution of wealth collided head on, culminating in the 1910 revolution, around the time Posada renamed and published his skull La Calavera Catrina.
The origin of Posada’s skeletal dame is rooted in Aztec mythology. La Calavera Catrina draws inspiration from Mictecacihuatl, the goddess of death and guardian of human remains in the underworld. Centuries ago this goddess presided over annual Aztec festivals honoring the dead, long before Mexico adopted the fanciful calaveras designed by Posada that are ubiquitously attached to Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations.
Learn more about the influence of Posada’s Calavera Catrina on Mexican and Mexican-American artists such as Diego Rivera and Alfredo Arreguín in our Images of Resilience: Chicana/o Art & its Mexican Roots gallery guide, available at the Lightcatcher.