La Catrina originally had nothing to do with the Mexican holiday Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
Artist José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) began his career as a lithography teacher. In 1887, he moved from Aquascalientes to Mexico City, where he worked as a freelance illustrator.
Deriving from the Spanish word for “skulls,” Posada’s calaveras were illustrations featuring skeletons which would become closely associated with Día de los Muertos. But that association occurred years after his death.
Most of these calaveras were published by Antonio Vanegas Arroyo, whose press produced inexpensive literature for the working classes, including thousands of satirical broadsides which Posada illustrated. Through this focus on mortality, Vanegas Arroyo and Posada satirized many poignant issues of the day, in particular the details of bourgeois life and the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz.
Much of his work reflected his disdain for dictator Porfirio Diaz. The Porfirian period is remembered for excesses and corruption, and the dictator’s obsession with European materialism and culture.
Posada’s most celebrated illustration was that of “La Calavera de la Catrina,” an etching made sometime between 1910 and 1913. “Catrina” is the feminine form of the word “catrin,” which means “dandy,” signifying a rich, society person.
This original description of La Catrina refers to her as a “Garbancera,” a nickname given to people of indigenous ancestry who were ashamed of their origins and tried to imitate the European style while lightening their brown skin with makeup.
Basically a skeleton wearing a flamboyant hat and dress, La Catrina humorously communicates the concept that death is the great equalizer of all. Despite all the riches you may or may not have in this life, everyone is equal in the end.
On Jan. 20, 1913, three years after the start of the Mexican Revolution, Posada died at his home in obscurity. He was penniless and buried in an unmarked grave. It was only years later, in the 1920s, that his work became recognized on a national and international level after it was championed by the French expatriate artist Jean Charlot, who described Posada as “printmaker to the Mexican people.”
Two of Mexico’s most recognized muralists, Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco, both point to their admiration of Posada as guiding inspirations for their artistic careers.
The continuing popularity of La Calavera as well as her name is also derived from a work by artist Diego Rivera in his 1947 mural, “Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central” (“Dream of a Sunday Afternoon Along Central Alameda”). Rivera’s mural was painted between 1946 and 1947 and can be found at Museo Mural Diego Rivera in Mexico City.
Today, La Catrina is the most recognizable image of the Day of the Dead celebrations. She has come to symbolize Mexicans’ willingness to laugh at death and a reminder that we are all equal in the end.