José Guadalupe Posada – La Catrina’s Journey to the Day of The Dead

My previous post has a very timely reference to Aguascalientes, since that Mexican state hosts an annual Festival de las Calaveras – Festival of Skulls, a colourful celebration that seeks to preserve the traditions of Mexico’s Day of the Dead – Día de Muertos (November 2):


The festival also serves as a homage to José Guadalupe Posada, creator of the character which would become the famous “Catrina” (a modern rendition seen in the photo at the top of this post.)

José Guadalupe Posada Aguilar was born in Aguascalientes on February 2, 1852, and from a young age, he worked as an engraver and lithographer, portraying critiques of exploitation of workers, daily lifestyles of privileged groups, and abuses of the government, particularly expressions of his political commentary during the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (1888-1910), and from the onset of the Mexican Revolutionary war in November of 1910, until his death in 1913.  Although author of a broad collection, his most famous pieces are definitely his skulls and skeletons, dressed to illustrate famous people, or propped to serve as reliable snapshots of current affairs, such as the “Calavera Maderista” (September 1911) – showing a female skeleton riding on a black horse’s back, dressed and armed to fight the Mexican Revolutionary war (click here to see image).  The illustration comes with the text: “Aquí está la calavera, la valiente maderista, que se receta a cualquiera con pólvora y dinamita” – ” Here is the skull, the brave Revolutionary (maderista – pro-Madero, who was the leader of the opposition against dictator Porfirio Díaz), who takes care of anyone with gun powder and dynamite.” 

In the early 1910s, the image shown below was published with the text “las que hoy son empolvadas garbanceras, pararán en deformes calaveras” -“ today’s powdered and dressed-up pretenders, shall end as deformed skulls”: 

“La Calavera Garbancera” – “The Pretentious Skull” (Public Domain image from Wiki Commons)

“Garbancera” was a popular name back at the turn of the 20th century to refer to women of humble or indigenous origins who dressed up and behaved as aristocrats, particularly favouring European fashions and culture, over Mexican traditions.  The original calavera garbancera engraving, as seen above, shows only the shoulders and head of a naked skeleton (an uncultured person), sporting a fancy hat (frivolous cover-up). 

Perhaps because of his criticism of the government and society of his time, Posada lived mostly in anonymity, and his work remained highly unrecognized, until decades later, when muralists Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco studied his work.  Between 1946 and 1947, Diego Rivera painted his famous mural “Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central” – “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Central Promenade”:

Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central” – “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Central Promenade” by Diego Rivera 1946-1947 (Image from Wikipedia Commons.)

The mural shows several historical figures, united with commoners and fictional characters alike, on a Sunday stroll in Mexico City’s Alameda Central park.  Featured at the centre of the mural, Posada is represented in a dark suit, holding the arm and hand of a fully dressed, full-bodied, calavera garbancera; Diego Rivera chose to call this character “La Calavera Catrina”, the skeleton of sort of a female version of a dandy.  Rivera emphasized the importance of this figure in his mural by the inclusion of a childish version of himself, holding hands with la catrina.

The macabre theme and reference to “calaveras” – also the name of short verses, composed around the Day of the Dead (Día de muertos) to describe a person in a satirical fashion, led to Posada’s skulls and skeletons to eventually become associated to the holiday, and his calavera garbancera entered the folklore of the festivities with the name coined by Diego Rivera.  Nowadays, all over Mexico, many representations of “La Catrina” take form in the last days of October, and leading to November first, All Saints Day, and November second, the legendary Day of the Dead.

The photo at the top of this post, and the images below are from the 2019 exhibition “Fiestas de Octubre” – “October Parties” in Guadalajara, Jalisco, which remained open to visitors also for good part of the month of November, when I took the photos:

In the photo below, several catrina figurines, in a store in Tlaquepaque, Jalisco (2019):

A line-up of catrinas, in Veracruz (photo from my sister, 2021):

Displays with catrinas in Culiacan, Sinaloa (photos from my sister, from left to right) at a park, a mall, and a movie theatre:

A revolutionary catrina, and a miniature bride (photo below, left), and the classic Posada’s garbancera, as part of a Day of the Day offering (photo below, right), both in Mazatlan, Sinaloa (2019):

My small ofrenda de día de muertos (Day of the Dead offering) this year includes just a few elements: papel picado (chiselled paper), calaveritas de azúcar (sugar skulls), candles, a religious symbol in the Cross, some droplets of colour in the bright yellow Yautli flowers from my garden, and a tiny figurine of la catrina, in her feathery hat and all:

For more Day of the Dead stories, and recipes for bread and other traditional dishes of this holiday, check out some of my posts from previous years, for example (click on text to visit):  An Offering for the Day of the Dead, Mixmole – Fish in Red or Green Sauce, Pan de Yema – A Day of the Dead Bread from Oaxaca, Pan de Muerto – Day of the Dead Bread, From Halloween to Day of the Dead – A Three Day Journey for the Souls

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