How ‘La Catrina’ Came To Symbolize The Day of the Dead

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From La Garbancera to La Catrina

Rivera, of course, is arguably the greatest artist in Mexican history. His epic murals remain internationally famous.

Frances Toor, on the other hand, was a modest Jewish intellectual who made her career writing about Mexican culture. In 1925 she started publishing Mexican Folkways, a popular bilingual magazine distributed in Mexico and the U.S. With Diego Rivera as her art editor, she started using the magazine to promote Posada. In annual October-November issues, Toor and Rivera featured large reprints of Posada’s calaveras.

However, Calavera Garbancera was never among them. She wasn’t important enough to showcase.

In 1930, Toor and Rivera published the first book of Posada’s engravings, which sold throughout Mexico and the U.S. In it, La Garbancera finally made an appearance. But she had a new name — Calavera Catrina. For reasons unknown, Toor and Rivera chose the honorific, which referred to her as a female dandy. The calavera was forevermore La Catrina.

Her fame, however, didn’t truly arrive until Posada’s riotous debut at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1944. The exhibition was a collaboration between the museum and the Mexican government. It was funded and facilitated by a special White House propaganda agency that used cultural diplomacy to fortify solidarity with Latin America during World War II.

This boosterism allowed the Posada exhibition to tour and give La Catrina wider exposure. She was seen and promoted in New York, Philadelphia, Mexico City and elsewhere in Mexico.

Perhaps more important was the exhibition catalog, which featured La Catrina as cover girl. It sold at each tour location. Complimentary copies were also distributed to prominent U.S. and Mexican authors and artists. They started writing about La Catrina and refashioning her in their artworks, popularizing her on both sides of the border.

La Catrina goes global

In 1947, Diego Rivera further immortalized La Catrina when he made her the focal point of one of his most famous murals, “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park.” The mural portrays Mexican history from the Spanish conquest to the Mexican Revolution. La Catrina stands at the literal center of this history, where Rivera painted her holding hands with Posada on one side and a boyhood version of himself on the other.

Rivera’s fame — and La Catrina’s newfound gravitas — inspired Mexican and Mexican American artists to incorporate her into their works, too.

Folk artists in Mexico began fashioning her into ceramic toys, papier-mâché figurines and other crafts sold during Day of the Dead. Mexican Americans utilized La Catrina in their murals, paintings and political posters as part of the Chicano Movement, which pushed for Mexican American civil rights in the 1960s and ‘70s.

La Catrina’s image is now used to sell anything from beer to Barbie dolls. You can order La Catrina costumes from Walmart and Spirit Halloween stores. In fact, La Catrina costume parades and contests are a relatively new Day of the Dead tradition in Mexico and the U.S. Participants span race, ethnicity and nationality.

Some people, such as “Catrina Christina” in Los Angeles, don a costume each year as a way to honor the dearly departed on Día de los Muertos. Others dress as La Catrina to grow their social media following, or impersonate her to make money.

Posada probably never expected his female calavera to become so famous. He merely wanted to use traditional Day of the Dead humor to make fun of the flamboyantly dressed garbanceras he saw hanging around Mexico City’s central plaza. Today, during Día de los Muertos, that same central plaza is filled with hundreds of La Catrina impersonators who, for a few dollars, will pose for photographs with tourists all too willing to pay for such a “traditional” cultural experience with an “authentic” Day of the Dead icon.

Posada, meanwhile, is likely laughing somewhere in the land of the dead.

This piece was originally published in The Conversation.





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