La Catrina: The dark history of Day of the Dead's immortal icon

The elegant skull has become a festive symbol of the Dia de los Muertos – but its original inception was a statement of more than just the inevitability of death.Friday, 18 October 2019

A La Catrina Calavera is a ubiquitous image during Day of the Dead – in costumes, food, paintings and dolls, like this one.
A La Catrina Calavera is a ubiquitous image during Day of the Dead – in costumes, food, paintings and dolls, like this one.
photo by Peter McCormick / Alamy

Everywhere you look on the streets during Day of the Dead celebrations across Latin America, a familiar face looks back. A face that juxtaposes the macabre and the elegant, it's in the makeup on children's faces, the elaborate dress of the women, in the celebratory 'bread of the dead' and in every shop window selling souvenirs and emblems of this uniquely atmospheric festival. 

This face has a definite aesthetic: a skull, wearing a much-embroidered bonnet resplendent with flowers. This is La Calavera Catrina – the ‘elegant skull’ – often simply La Catrina. And however superficially festive it may appear, La Catrina's presence throughout Mexico's Day of the Dead mythology makes a much deeper statement of mortality, destiny and the societal divisions of class. 

A drawing of the Aztec goddess Mictēcacihuātl, who was referenced in the manuscript of the Codex Borgia, a manual of Mesoamerican worship believed to have been written before the Spanish conquest.
A drawing of the Aztec goddess Mictēcacihuātl, who was referenced in the manuscript of the Codex Borgia, a manual of Mesoamerican worship believed to have been written before the Spanish conquest.
photo by The Picture Art Collection / Alamy

The Dame of the Dead

La Catrina was not Latin America’s first grand lady of the afterlife. This honour belongs to Mictēcacihuātl – the queen of the Aztec underworld of Chicunamictlan. 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. 

And where had those souls passed to? The belief amongst the Mesoamericans was that the dead make a journey that descends nine levels to the depths of Chicunamictlan. The ancients' view of death was not a mournful one: they saw it as a part of the cycle of life, and celebrated the departed by leaving offerings on makeshift altars, or ofrendas, that would assist them in their onward trials.  

These ofrendas continue to be associated with Day of the Dead, which over the centuries also absorbed pagan and Catholic celebration customs – including the dates of the festival straddling both All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day and All Soul's Day. But the defining image of the modern festival would come later – and from an unexpected source. 

Origins of an icon

The ingredients of the modern image of La Catrina were drawn together as recently as 1910 by the Mexican illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada. Posada, who was born in Mexico in 1852, would create cartoonish lithographs and engravings to satirically illustrate political and societal issues; his work was frequently published in the Mexican press.

What drew these illustrations together and made Posada’s fame particularly distinctive was the sketches' central motif: Posada's figures, regardless of occupation, class or status, were represented with skulls for faces. These skull caricatures, or calaveras, would depict anything from national tragedies, to current events and figures, to historical incidents and literary characters. Posada's sketches were sometimes prophetic-apocalyptic, such as that published in 1899 depicting a volcanic eruption, the foreground scattered with a chaotic funerary scene of calaveras – including one rising from a grave.   

'The Cavalera of the Morbid Cholera" was one of Posada's newspaper sketches.
'The Cavalera of the Morbid Cholera" was one of Posada's newspaper sketches.
photo by Jose Guadalupe Posada / Antonio Vanegas Arroyo / US Library of Congress
Another of Posada's 'calaveras' images depicts a volcanic eruption in 1899.
Another of Posada's 'calaveras' images depicts a volcanic eruption in 1899.
photo by Jose Posada / Antonio Vanegas Arroyo

The reduction of every person to bones, no matter of time, place, class or deed gave Posada's images a homogenising quality, the apparent message being ‘underneath, we are all the same’. 

Combined with the darker implications of the skull, and Posada's illustrations became societal levellers of the bluntest kind. Published during a pandemic of the disease, the character of cholera in the 1910 sketch La calavera del cólera morbo (the calavera of the morbid cholera) is not a skull, and is rather a fantastical humanoid with the body of a snake. However surrounding ‘cholera’ are a dozen skulls, all depicted with the worldly effects of a range of occupations, from jewellers to tailors and blacksmiths, to book-keepers and judges. Again, the message was one of neutralisation: no matter which part of society you occupy, death kills all.

La Calavera Catrina 

Posada's original sketch of La Calavera Catrina was made around 1910. It was designed to be a satire referencing the high-society European obsessions of leader Porfirio Diaz, whose corruption led to the Mexican Revolution of 1911, and the toppling of his regime. 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, or ‘dandy.’

The original cartoon of La Calavera Catrina, by Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada. It is thought to have been drawn around 1910, as the Mexican Revolution was gathering steam.
The original cartoon of La Calavera Catrina, by Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada. It is thought to have been drawn around 1910, as the Mexican Revolution was gathering steam.

The image was later turned into a mural in Mexico City by Diego Rivera, which pictured a central 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. 

Diego Rivera's mural Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central depicts key moments in Mexican history. Standing central is La Catrina Calavera, her arm held by her original creator Jose Posada – while the muralist's wife Frida Kahlo looks on.
Diego Rivera's mural Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central depicts key moments in Mexican history. Standing central is La Catrina Calavera, her arm held by her original creator Jose Posada – while the muralist's wife Frida Kahlo looks on.
photo by Bjanka Kadic / Alamy

Festival Folk Hero

The adoption of La Catrina as the emblem of Day of the Dead today takes many forms – from the sugar skulls in every shop window to the makeup and dress exhibited by festival-goers everywhere, male and female, Catrin and Catrina. In many ways she ties together the times and their interpretation of death: her elegant dress suggests celebration, her smile – however inescapable – reminding us that there is perhaps comfort in an acceptance of mortality, and that the dead should be commemorated, not feared. That whoever you are, we all have the same destiny. And perhaps in a nod back to this culture's earliest beliefs, that the guardian of whatever comes after life takes a decidedly female form.   

A Day of the Dead celebrant dressed as La Catrina Calavera during the festivities in Oaxaca.
A Day of the Dead celebrant dressed as La Catrina Calavera during the festivities in Oaxaca.
photo by National Geographic Image Collection / Alamy
Read More