"It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor."
An Evolving Tradition
AN EVOLVING TRADITION
The Catrina has become an iconic symbol of Dia de los Muertos, though her history is rather complex. Originating with print-maker, cartoonist and lithographer Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) of Aguascalientes, La Catrina was Posada’s satirical critique of native Mexicans who impoverished themselves at the expense of aspiring to European aristocracy. Politically, Jose Guadalupe Posada’s satires were critiques of Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz, whose reign created polar extremes between the wealthy and impoverished. While Diaz is praised for contributing to the financial stability of Mexico through modernization, he was also materialistic, corrupt and quite obsessed with European excesses. This era is important in the history of Mexico, as it sparked the 1910 rebellion that ended Diaz’s rule in 1911, while igniting the Mexican Revolution.
The most famous calavera sketch, La Calavera Garbancera, shows a woman dressed in her chapeau en attende, or European style hat. Presented as “Skull of the female stripper who is married to a Dandy,” the leaflet describes her as being embarrassed of and in denial of her indigenous identity.
Posada died in poverty in 1913, and wasn’t recognized until the 1920’s. La Calavera Garbancera remained relatively obscure until Diego Rivera completed his famous mural, Sueno de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday afternoon along Central Alameda). This mural includes iconic Mexicans from over a 400 year period, including Benito Juarez, Father Hidalgo, Jose Guadalupe Posada, Frida Kahlo, and Diego Rivera himself. In this mural, Rivera included La Catrina, and created her with a full figure, in an elegant dress. His addition of a feather serpent boa, emblematic of the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl, not only connected La Catrina to the ancient indigenous origins Posada was originally alluding to, but also presented her as a woman who is proud of her heritage. This clever interpretation focused less on the shame and poverty presented by Posada’s original piece, and instead depicted indigenous peoples as an elegant, beautiful culture that is proud and important. The use of La Catrina in this mural also informs the viewer that no matter our beauty, pride, wealth or importance, death happens to all of us – and that in the end, we are all equal - with perhaps, the exception of La Catrina, who continues to live on. This is a prodigious statement, as the mural itself tells a story about Mexico that not only includes the victors, corrupt leaders, oppressors, leaders and heroes - but ultimately humanizes the indigenous narrative by illustrating their survival in spite of Spanish Colonial rule.
La Catrina's presence in Rivera's Sueno de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Centra is exceptionally political, and is perhaps the reason why La Catrina became inseparable from Mexican iconography - for she is the only fictional character out of 400, smiling at the audience from her central position. The fact that she is holding Diego Rivera's hand speaks to the artists' intention to make her the most important character of all.
Rivera’s mural was painted between 1946-47, and was originally at the end of Alameda Park. During the 1985 earthquake that shook much of Mexico City to her foundations, the mural miraculously survived while everything fell down around her. The mural is now housed in the Museo Mural Deigo Rivera, across the street from the original location.
Posada's decision to represent an indigenous woman as a calavera certainly connected her to the ancient death rituals predominant in the ancient empires of Mexico, which is likely why La Catrina is most celebrated during Dia de los Muertos celebrations, despite her being just over 100 years old.
Following Diego Rivera's depiction of Catrina came the next artistic response to Posada's original idea. Born in Morelia, Michoacan Mexico on July 4, 1942, prolific Maestro Juan Torres studied at the Popular School of Fine Arts, and with Maestro Alfredo Zalce. Working in various mediums from paint to sculpture, it was 1982 when Torres first began delving into work with clay.
Installation by Jesus Alexandre
Photographed in Spain
It wasn’t until 2012 when La Catrina would evolve from the visual & handicraft arts, to one that begged for audience participation in the form of a performing arts installation. Having embarked on a journey of mysticism with an indigenous shaman, Uruapan artist Jesus Alexandre was called to create a series of art installations that would later become an important body of work entitled “Dia de los Muertos: A Human Celebration of Life.” His first installation, Esto es Vida, includes the family of his friend and shaman, and was created in response to a peyote induced vision. Alexandre went on to create a public installation that called for 51 participants, all clad in fancy outfits and painted faces.
It was at this time, Alexandre conceptualized an ever-evolving Catrina – which began by reaching back prior to Posada's 1913 La Calavera Garbancera, in order to explore pre-Hispanic indigenous relationships with life and death. From pre-Hispanic origins, Alexandre has since brought La Catrina forward, transcending the French-loving, extravagant and materialistic Catrina, to one we can all relate to. In the Fall of 2017, Alexandre would take this concept to Europe, where he created 4 major installations in Spain, as well as smaller installations in the Netherlands, Germany and Austria.
And just like that –La Catrina left Mexico to turn heads around the world.