Travel Curator Bibi Jordan
THE ELEGANT CADAVER
To-die-for skulls are as ubiquitous in modern American culture as they have been for centuries in Mexico But while the garishly painted sugar skulls of Mexico that inspired today’s urban art are distinctly Mayan, the fashionista skeletons parading on the Day of the Dead are a modern embellishment derived from Mexico’s famous female activist. This bone-shaking, graphic heroine, La Catrina, is hauntingly relevant this Halloween poised on the cusp of critical elections.
The “calavera” (cadaver) was born in 1912 as a zinc etching by printmaker, cartoon satorist and lithographer, Jose Guadalupe Posada. Mexico’s ‘father of graphic arts’ was inspired by Mictecacihuatl, the indigenous goddess of the underworld who presided over the October festival of the dead. Posada presented his Lady of Death as a fantastically made-up skull decked out in an over-the-top hat. Posada christened her La Calavera Garbancera incorporating a derogatory term applied to Mexicans who scorned their indigenous roots and worshiped European culture.
Posada was renowned for biting satire illustrated with skulls and skeletons that dug into the dirt of Mexico’s current events. So how did La Calavera Garbancera transform into the iconic La Catrina?
It was Mexican painter Diego Rivera who took Posada’s skull and gave it a body. Literally. In 1947, Rivera adapted Posada’s signature skull into the full-bodied skeleton figure that is the focus of his mural “Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central” (1947) (“Dream of a Sunday Afternoon along Central Alameda”). He called her La Catrina, the feminine version of the Catrin, the nickname for a bon vivant dandy in Mexican culture.
But La Catrina was never a dilettante; In Posada’s hands she was a bare-bones, political activist. Posada's calaveras — La Catrina above all — were designed to rattle the bones of a country crippled by the polarizing regime of Porfirio Diaz. Bloated with greed and grandeur, the dictator “modernized” Mexico through a reign of repression and terror.
By giving life to newspaper coverage of extreme income inequality and injustice, La Catrina brewed rebellion in the hearts of the poor, igniting the movement that toppled Diaz and evolved into the Mexican Revolution.
Far from a simple free-spirit, La Catrina has come to represent a satirical obituary for narcissistic oligarchs pandering to foreign influences. La Catrina is as relevant today as she was a century ago.
Viva La Catrina!