Everyone knows the Catrina as a symbol of death, but it was also meant to poke fun at people who aspired to belong to the upper class.
Earlier this year, when Guillermo del Toro won the Golden Globe for his last movie, The Shape of Water, he was asked in an interview how he managed to reconcile his interest in dark stories and characters with his reputation as one of the most charismatic people in the film industry. His answer was heard around the world, and it also became a very popular meme in Mexico, a symbol of cultural uniqueness and pride. His reason was simply that he “was Mexican”. As simple as his answer sounded, it was also very specific, and it spoke to the Mexican traditions that celebrate and embrace death as a natural process. In Mexico, we're not afraid of death; we laugh at it. Celebrations like the Day of the Dead have become famous around the world thanks to the values and attitudes that surround them, and their many visual ornaments have become icons of our culture and traditions.
One of the most important icons in this celebration is the famous “Catrina,” a skeleton lady with fancy clothes and a huge and showy hat who smiles at the viewer. This character, who can be seen not only during the Day of the Dead celebrations, but also everywhere in Mexico, was created by José Guadalupe Posada, a nineteenth-century artist who captured our most characteristic trait in his art, but who also showed us, through his satirical and macabre illustrations, a reality of the country far from the one the government was portraying internationally.
He worked for many newspapers and advertising agencies that needed artists who could create visual narratives that even those who couldn’t read (at the time, the large majority) could understand. For that reason, many of his lithographs, engravings, and illustrations are filled with elements that tell a concise and detailed story. But something that makes Posada one of the best Mexican artists in history, besides his unique style (that for the first time didn’t try to imitate European or American ones) was his famous skeleton characters. Sometimes wearing fancy clothes as a way of parodying those belonging to the higher classes, and sometimes wearing simple, even shabby outfits as the majority of the population did, Posada’s characters represented the many faces of a rich and contrasting country where people lived in miserable conditions.
The reason why he decided to focus almost all of his art on skeletons was to embrace the Pre-Hispanic belief that death is just a passage to sacred immortality. But beyond that, having lived through one of the most tumultuous moments in the history of Mexico (Porfirio Díaz's dictatorship and the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution), he felt the need to explore the immense social difference between classes and the terrible conditions in which people lived. As he believed, death, after all, is the only truly democratic process. No matter what race or social class, we all look pretty much the same when we die, a bunch of bones, and if that’s the case, why not laugh about it?
This was the context in which he created his most iconic work. Originally named La Calavera Garbancera, Posada created his masterpiece in 1910, the year the Mexican Revolution started. The image was a satire that made fun those who grew and sold chickpeas (garbanzo in Spanish) and who followed the classist trend at the time: using powder to look whiter and pretend they belonged to a higher class (something that President Díaz is still accused of). This was Posada’s way of showing how class, besides being linked to the economic status of a person, was more related to their race and skin color. His drawing poked fun at those who denied their roots in their hope to belong and have the privilege of the higher classes.
Calavera de intervención
Apart from using his funny skeletons to expose the reality of his country and to make social and political comments, as democratic emblems, these Calaveras also portrayed working-class heroes, peasants, and the many rich traditions of a country who was sadly fighting to conceal them because they felt ashamed of them. We owe Posada, not only a wide array of emblematic icons of our culture, but also that sense of celebration of our national pride that visually enriches our everyday lives. Looking at his works is remembering our roots and history, even the darkest episodes, because all of them make us what we are.
Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central - Diego Rivera (1947)
Just a couple of years after the creation of his famous Catrina, Posada died in poverty, immersed in a terrible problem of alcoholism, and it wasn’t until some years later that his work was appreciated and praised. For instance, many took some of his illustrations as flags for the revolutionary cause of the moment. But without a doubt, it was Diego Rivera the one who put him in the place he had always deserved. In Rivera’s Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central (1947) he portrays the famous Catrina right in the middle, with her creator on one side, and Frida and Diego on the other. He was the one who named it Catrina, alluding those aristocrats who would dress in dashing clothes (men, for instance, were called “Catrines”). From that moment on, the name stuck, and the image became one of the most important icons of Mexican culture you can find basically everywhere.
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