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 lady, 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.”
There are beautiful garbanceras,
wearing corset and high heels,;
but they are to be skeletons,
skeletons of the crowd.
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 people.
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 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 visualise 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.
The political context of the engravings
Looking up on French manners and culture was something built up over the 30 year administration period called the Porfiriato, during Mexico’s president General Porfirio Diaz administration. The general loved french culture, although he had active and notably served the Mexican army in fighting against the French invasion in 1862 when President Benito Juárez declared the nation bankrupt and stopped servicing the debt with United States, England and France.
As a result Napoleon III sent over 35,000 frenchmen and orchestrated Mexico to become an Empire and had the Hapsburg member Maximilian I be offered the title of Emperor of Mexico by a group of catholic church clergymen and wealthy Mexicans in 1863 . That did not work well. Maximilian I was captured and supposedly shot in 1867. The army commander that made this possible was Porfirio Diaz who had escaped French prison a year earlier. The republican president Benito Juárez had the backing of the United States as these in turn came out of their civil war and looked south of the border to see the French were already there (Monroe doctrine). The French army left Mexico.
Years later Porfirio Diaz became president and stayed in charge for thirty years, except a brief corruption-laden four year stint by Manuel González colleague of arms to Porfirio Diaz.
It was the modernisation period of Mexico, that leveraged upon the industrial revolution and the impulse of art and literature in the society. Much of Mexico’s infrastructure was laid down then, specially the railways.
But modernisation came at a very high social cost. Mexico’s economic success during the Porfiriato had negative social consequences. The rural peasantry bore most of the cost of modernisation. The program was also brought about at the expense of personal and political freedom; the army and the “rurales” became the forces of repression for the maintenance of the Porfirian peace during the Porfiriato.
The wealth that flowed into urban areas during the Porfiriato fostered the growth of an urban middle class of white-collar workers, artisans, and entrepreneurs. The role of women in the economically active population went down significantly  though, as the industrial revolution displaced work at fields and estates, into factories and families moved to urban areas .
The middle class had little use for anything Mexican, but instead identified strongly with the European manners and tastes adopted by the urban upper class. The emulation of Europe was especially evident in the arts and in architecture, to the detriment of indigenous forms of cultural expression. The identification of the urban middle class with the European values promoted by Díaz further aggravated the schism between urban and rural Mexico. These led to increasing protests and social unrest.
Porfirio Diaz had several of today’s most iconic monuments of Mexico City built to the Neoclassical, Art Noveau and Art Deco styles (The Angel of Independence inaugurated in 1910 and the Palace of Fine Arts started in 1904, both projected by italian architects though). Ironically, Porfirio Diaz went into exile in France in 1911 and died there in 1915.
The “Calaverita” verses
During the administration of General Porfirio Diaz that led to the 1910 Mexican Revolution, political and social protest relied in printed verses that emulated epitaphs of existing politicians and their accompanying drawings inspired in skeletons and skulls. The verses were made public on prior to the Day of the Dead celebrations. These eight-syllable verses of irony depicted those actions or traits of a political character that common people would not be able to mock or criticise about in an open fashion. The tradition continues till these days in Mexico, both for political reasons as well as a prank to friends and family or to common characters in society such as a butcher, a merchant, and other trades.
The verses tradition was already in use for this same task in the colony last years and were banned by the Viceroy at the time. They were known as “panteones or calaveritas” (cementeries or tiny skeletons) and reappeared in the mid 19th century . The first printed calaveritas appeared back in a 1849 edition of the Guadalajara city newspaper called El Socialista property and italian. and reappeared. They kept banned by the political class in the first decades of independent Mexico with the enforcement of the rurales military and other political police, such as the French itself during the invasion years.
The Mexican Day of the Dead Celebration
The Day of the Dead celebration focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. In Mexico it is customary to see these gatherings happening at the cemeteries where the relative lies, specially in small towns and villages. Otherwise, it takes place in family homes. The celebration takes place on November 1st. and 2nd, in connection with the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.
The syncretism of the Spanish catholic celebrations and the pre-hispanic cultures 2,500–3,000 years old, gave way to our very special mexican celebration.
Rituals to death deities were performed n the regions of central Mexico and Oaxaca by Aztec, Mixtec and
Zapotec cultures -, and dedicated to Mictlantecuhtli lord of Mictlan and the goddess Mictecacihuatl or the “Lady of the Dead”, corresponding to the modern Catrina. In the Mesoamerican region, – they were dedicated to Ah Puch lord of the Xibalba on the Cimi day (day of the dead).
Both Mictlan and Xibalba underworlds had nine reigns or underwater rivers. In the pre-Hispanic era skulls were commonly kept as trophies and displayed during the rituals to symbolize death and rebirth.
The tradition today includes building altars honoring the deceased using sugar skulls, marigolds (or cempaxóchitl which is believed to trap the sunlight and thus guide the deceased in its journey to the underworld reigns), and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed, called “ofrendas” (offerings) and visiting graves with these as gifts. They also leave possessions of the deceased. The symbolism of the altar elements is ample
and of both pre-hispanic and Spanish catholic traditions.
In 2003, UNESCO inscribed the Mexican “Día del Muerto” celebration into the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity as a World’ Intangible Heritage for considering this one of the most important live symbols of Mexican culture and also one the oldest and strongly intertwined beliefs and practices of our indigenous culture.
La “Calavera Garbancera” turns 100 years
La Catrina has become the icon of death in its most sublime representation. It is being
used in almost all “Día de Muertos” celebrations in the country and it has escaped from Posada’s or Rivera’s drawings and paintings, into the realm of sculptures and handcrafts.
In Posada’s own city, Aguascalientes, a monument has been built by its entrance of La Catrina, and she is also the host of the Feria de las Calaveras (Calaveras festival) that takes place around the “Día de Muertos” there.
In 2010 La Catrina appeared in the short film “La Catrina en Trajinera” (“Trajineras” are decorated rafts that transport people through the mystical and beautiful Xochimilco canals south of Mexico city) filmed for its 100th birthday. La Catrina had already been the main character of “Hasta los Huesos” (to your bare bones) another stop-motion short shot in 2001. In it she sings the famous song La Llorona. The plot takes place in an underworld cabaret. La Catrina is of course, dressed as in Diego Rivera’s painting.
In the same year Miss Beauty Mexico Karin Ontiveros wore the National costume award winning dress for the pageant; the Catrina dress in fuchsia.
In 2012 Aguascalientes municipality and Cuartoscuro photo magazine and agency, organised a photo contest with death as its theme.
La Catrina in Tulum
As in many towns in Mexico, and particularly in this one for its relevance as an international tourism destination in the Mexican Caribbean, La Catrina can be found in several good handcrafts shops along the main avenue. Tulum Día de Muertos celebrations are more private than open, and the Maya people celebrate to their own tradition off the city.
Just recently, I discovered Ink2lu’um art gallery and tatoo-art place (by the Batey restaurant), run by Valeria and Miguel.
Miguel has been creating awesome tattoo-art (XwArt) around La Catrina in case you wonder about
getting a tattoo these holidays and, also wander a few blocks off the Scotiabank town crossing to their shop. Miguel works in Spain off-season. These are some of his recent tattoo creations. More on his portfolio here.
I hope you’ve enjoyed our stepping together through La Catrina’s doorway to have a brief look at our Mexican culture and its heritage and symbolism that rests behind this iconic character or ours.
Have a radiant stay in Tulum!
What’s so sassy of this skinny lady? by Juan Ayza M. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credits: Refer to each photo caption and/or to the description field text by clicking on the photo.
Other publishers: This article was first published on Nov 01 in Todotulum.com reservations and tourism site, under the title “La Catrina Day” and with a different set of photos as per Todotulum editor selection. It was formatted into three sections.
 Mexico had its second period as a monarchy under emperor Maximilian I of the Hapsburg crown in 1863. The country was first declared an empire under Agustin de Iturbide, from July 21, 1822 to March 12th, 1823, just after its independence from the Spanish crown to which it was a colony. Iturbide, a military that originally served the Spanish Viceroy Félix María Calleja who had made him a colonel in 1813 to combat the first rebels opposing the Spanish crown. After being removed from his charge in 1816, Iturbide went rogue in 1820 and declared in favour of the rebel cause under the Plan de Iguala act. With the support of most of the army battalions, the Spanish colony surrendered and signed with Iturbide the Plan de Cordova treaty through Viceroy O’Donnojú in August 1821, which stopped the war and let Iturbide marched into the city of Mexico a few days later. After a provisional government effort saw Iturbide’s political party lacked the organisation as compared with other parties associated to the house of the Bourbons (Spanish royal family), republicans and liberals, all of which had Masonic backing, a group of military from his former battalion offered him the head of the Mexican Empire. The Spanish crown did not recognise Iturbide’s government and instead supported General Santa Anna military campaign who finally overturned Iturbide’s ruling. Iturbide went into exile but returned in 1824 where he was captured and shot dead.
 Monopoly, Capitalism and Women’s work during the Porfiriato. Margaret Towner, Sage Publications, Page 90. http://lap.sagepub.com/content/4/1-2/90.extract# . In 1863 when Maximilian I and his wife Carlota of Belgium arrived in Mexico, they adopted the grandsons of Iturbide I, and named them heirs of the throne, to form what could have been the Hapsburg-Iturbide crown.
 Working Women in Mexico During the Porfiriato: 1880 – 1910. Vivian M. Vallens. R&E Associates, 1978. “Prior the Industrial Revolution, women played a direct role in the economy and in the development of society. Most of the population lived on large estates or haciendas on which all production took place for each family. Women worked alongside men in the fields or in home enterprises; in addition to their economic contribution, women also undertook the task of bearing and raising a large family. With the Industrial Revolution came many changes in economics, politics, society, and in the role of women. The production of many necessities shifted out of the home and into the factories. Many families moved to urban areas to better their economic status and to become a part of the new society. The government practiced laissez faire (no regulation of the business sector) which allowed the factory owners to abuse their workers to reap great profits. The working class was most affected by the Industrial Revolution”. http://www.directessays.com/viewpaper/3740.html