The Birth of "La Catrina" a Celebration of Life, Death, and a Folk Art Hero's Journey

by Clayton Freeman October 13, 2021

The Birth of

The massive multi-cultural and multinational holiday, festival, and celebration known as Dia de los Muertos or for those of us who have the hardest of time remembering even the most simplistic of Spanish words, "Day of the Dead," is just around the corner. There are few holidays that in their celebration, transcend various countries, cultures, art, and spiritual significances. Day of the Dead celebrated here in the U.S. can look, sound, and feel much different than Dia de Los Muertos celebrated in Mexico and other Latin countries and cultures. Sharing the facts, festivities, and historical relevance of this holiday would require a whole book. We wanted to share just a tiny facet of this holiday, an interesting little story of José Guadalupe Posada and the birth of "La Catrina." A fascinating figure of Mexico's artisan culture whose work and contribution to Dia de Los Muertos were and still are integral, yet almost forgotten in history. 

He was born on February 2, 1852, in the small town of Aguascalientes, Mexico. The son of a baker and the sixth of eight children. As a boy, Posada was educated by his older brother Cirilo, a "campesino" and a teacher of sorts. Cirilo taught his younger brother how to read, write, and draw. This small but significant bit of education would prove a critical asset to Posada as he matured to become a Mexican political printmaker and engraver. Posada's work has influenced many Latin American artists and cartoonists because of its satirical acuteness and social engagement. He used elaborate "calaveras" or skulls and skeletons to make political and cultural critiques.

Jose Guadalupe Posada Calavera artwork

01 A lithograph.depicting the beginnings of the Mexican Revolution in 1910  | 02.Posada's lithographic illustrations, albeit satirical in nature, kept the Mexican population aware and informed about the happenings in the revolution.

From the mid 1800's to the mid 1900's, while the United States was expanding its settlements out west in search of gold, land, and economic opportunities Mexico and its diverse people were experiencing significant turmoil both social and political unrest.

During this time, Posada developed his education, skills, and ideas as a lithographer. The first job in his early journalistic career was as the political cartoonist for El Jicote "The Bumblebee," the local newspaper of Aguascalientes; where his first cartoons were published. Calaveras, skulls, and skeletons would not appear in Posada's work until much later in his career. While working with his colleagues in a local print shop located in Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico the group of lithographers/editors began to publish "Literary Calaveras" these papers included short rhyming poems and were illustrated with elaborate skeletons and distributed through the local paper route.

As these short editorials grew in popularity, Posada's notoriety and the messaging transformed from lite cultural critiques into thoughtful messages regarding the profound inequalities found throughout Mexico. One of his most famous drawings is "La Calavera" a skeleton outfitted with a large festive headdress adorned with elegant flowers and large feathers. These articles of clothing were commonly worn and could only be afforded by the elite class. The unwritten messaging included with the artwork would make fun of the elite class by saying, "you might be able to afford expensive clothing and large elegant hats while the rest of us cannot, but underneath this ridiculous attire, you are the same as the rest if us."

Guadalupe Posadas Catrinas and Calaveras

01. Posada was known for his "broadside" publications, hese were large one-sided publications that were printed on very cheap newsprint and distributed all throughout the country. Similar to advertising posters, these became extremely popular and were purchased by all elements of the Mexican population.  They were so cleverly illustrated that even those who could not read were able to understand the messages they conveyed.| 02. Posada standing at the entrance to his Lithography/printing shop in Mexico | 03.The skeleton of the people’s editor (Antonio Vanegas Arroyo) with whom Posada began his lithography career.

Posada's drawings and editorials were distributed in larger quantities around November 1st and 2nd and the common folk of Mexico would often include them in "Offrendas" elaborate altars erected to honor the memory of friends and family members who had died. Thus the drawings and editorials became further associated with "El Dia de los Muertos".

Posada's work would also draw attention the great civil unrest that was making its way through the towns and cities of Mexico, charging the country and it's people toward an inevitable revolution. The farmers and working-class peoples of Mexico were frustrated and angered by the widening wealth gap between the barons, magnates, and politicians of Mexican society many of whom were not elected by the people yet ruled the country with fears tyranny. These illustrations by Posada kept the fires fueled, and the emotions high amongst the Mexican populace where many were illiterate, and not a word was necessary to convey the message.

Posada the Mexican artist of La Calavera

01.A depiction of Posada (drawn of himself) gazing out his window while watching the revolution unfold as he had predicted. The bottom 3 detailed photos are of the conflict and political satire. | 02. The drawing that Posada is best known for "La Catrina".

Many people like to say that history repeats itself, but nothing could be further from the truth. History has never exactly repeated itself. Mark Twain once said, "history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme". Whether repetitious or not, it is essential to recognize the parallels along the way. 

Posada's art may appear old and some may even say primitive but the messaging is as relevant today as it was century ago. It is rare accomplishment when the body of an artist's work can be the paradigm for a celebration of both life and death while also providing profound political statements. 

Day of the Dead inspired kitchenware and barware

 01. For this Zenwaro signature design the artwork on each trivet was adapted from "La Catrina" José Guadalupe Posada the father of the Catrina circa 1888. View This Item | 02. The Vintage Catrina kitchen canisters, Posada's "La Calavera" Catrina is featured on either side of the canisters available in 3 sizes 100% hand painted in full color and beautiful detail. View This Item | 03. Original art adapted from another of Posada's prints. Fusing retro lucent colors with art of vintage era Mexico is perfectly fitting for this trivet set. Part Andy Warhol, part Day of the Dead an old twist to an essential modern era home accessory. View This Item





Clayton Freeman
Clayton Freeman

Author

Partner, Designer, Importer, and Team Member at Zenwaro™


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