La Catrina, an immortal and political icon

La Calavera Catrina – “the elegant skull” –  or often simply La Catrina, is one of the most recognizable symbols of the Dia de los Muertos holiday.

Created by Mexican Illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada, is part of his series of satirical lithographs published for the masses in the Mexican press that addressed political and societal issues. They were a reference to the high-society obsession with European customs and by extension, Mexican leader Porfirio Diaz, whose corruption ultimately led to the Mexican Revolution of 1911.  

The reduction of every person to bones with skulls for faces, no matter of time, place, class or deed was the sketches’ central motif and gave Posada’s images a homogenising quality, the apparent message being ‘underneath, we are all the same.

The original name of the sketch reflected this cultural appropriation adopted by certain members of Mexican society: La Calavera Garbancera, with some sources referring to the latter word as slang for a woman who renounces her Mexican culture and adopts European aesthetics. The later christening would also come from slang, with the word “catrin” or “catrina” often used to refer to a well-dressed man or woman.

Juxtaposing the macabre and the elegant and through the decorated sugar skulls, face painting, and elegant dresses, she gives a modern nod to the ancient Aztec queen of the underworld,  Mictēcacihuātl. 

Because La Catrina was not Latin America’s first grand lady of the afterlife. 

Mictēcacihuātl, the queen of the Aztec underworld of Chicunamictlan, was the central figure for anyone who passed on in the Aztec culture.  Her role was to watch over the bones of the dead, and her presence was front-and-centre during any recognition of those who had passed on.  

A mural by Diego Rivera that survived Mexico City’s devastating 1985 earthquake, picture in central composition La Catrina in an ostentatious full-length gown,  linking arms with Posada himself and also Riviera’s wife, the artist Frida Kahlo.  The mural – Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central – became a cultural treasure and further amplified La Catrina’s image in the national consciousnesses. 

As part of Sotheby’s Most Famous Artworks in the World, the following video digs into the iconic fresco:

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