Often referred to as the Grande Dame of Death, La Calavera Catrina (the “elegant skull”)—or, simply, La Catrina—is frequently seen throughout the streets of Mexico during the Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos, celebrations. You’ve likely seen the face before: an eerie meld of macabre and charm; fear and poise. But from where did this deathly figure emerge? What does she stand for? And why has she become such a ubiquitous part of Mexican culture?
To understand the significance of La Catrina’s ornate characterization, one must have a better understanding of death—especially when talking about culture as rich and celebratory as that of Latin Americans.
The very first appearance of the Lady of the Dead in Mexico dates back to the Aztec Goddess Mictecacihuatl (Mitcal)—known as the Queen of the Underworld of Chicunamictlan. In addition to protecting the bones of the dead, her presence was at the heart of gatherings to recognize those who had passed away. It is important to note that in Mesoamerican culture, the view of death was not one of great sadness but rather an extension of life’s celebrated cycle. Such were these celebrations that mourners would share offerings, or ofrendas, to assist their loved ones on their descent to Chicunamictlan.
La Catrina, however, is not Mictecacihuatl—it is, instead, the creation of Mexican illustrator José Guadalupe Posada. Posada, born in Mexico in 1852, was a satirical cartoonist who would often compose lithographs and engravings of cartoonish representations of political and societal figures. The most identifiable element of Posada’s drawings were the skulls that sat atop every one of his characters’ shoulders. By reducing everybody to a bundle of bones—regardless of their class, position, skin color—Posada’s work nurtured the idea of homogenization. In short: deep down, we are all the same.
Posada’s original sketch of La Catrina first appeared around 1910, a satirical reference to the cultural appropriation of the European-obsessed leader Porfirio Díaz, whose regime was toppled soon after, following the lead-up to the Mexican Revolution of 1911. This image, of a skull festooned with traditionally European garb, appeared in newspapers throughout Mexico and was co-opted by painter Diego Rivera, who included La Catrina in one of his many murals in Mexico City. The mural, Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central, became a cultural mainstay and cemented La Catrina as a recognizable force.
Today, the modern image of La Catrina remains iconic. Her likeness features across various media and forms: including artwork, fashion, even food. She stands as an emblematic symbol not only of the Mexican people but of a softer, more attuned mascot—one who makes it easier to find the celebratory meaning behind death via the visual lure of creative art.
Another element in which we, as humans, are all linked is the fact that, someday, we will all die. La Catrina serves as a reminder that it doesn’t have to be so bad.