Day of the Dead's La Catrina can teach us about impact of our social media use

ByJuan Carlos Guerrero KGO logo
Tuesday, November 2, 2021
La Catrina: Grand dame of Day of the Dead
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La Catrina is an elegantly dressed skeleton who was not always associated with Day of the Dead. Her original message applies to social media users.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- La Catrina is perhaps the most recognizable symbol of Day of the Dead.

She's an elegantly dressed skeleton that has inspired many men and women to put on skull makeup and imitate her during the Mexican holiday.

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But La Catrina was not always associated with Día de Muertos, a celebration that dates back to Mesoamerican times to honor ancestors who have passed away.

The original La Catrina was created in 1910 around the start of the Mexican Revolution by José Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican printmaker who created political cartoons.

"The original name was La Calavera Gabancera," said Bertha Rodriguez, chief operating officer at San Francisco's Mexican Museum.

"La Calavera Garbancera" was created by Mexican printmaker José Guadalupe Posada in 1910 as a social critique.

Rodriguez said the image poked fun of street market vendors who stopped selling corn, a traditional Mexican staple, and instead began selling chickpeas or garbanzo beans.

"They were women who were poor but would wear European clothes and try to look European and they would deny their indigenous roots. It was a critique of the masses, not of poverty," said Rodriquez.

The original skull print showed the Calavera Garbancera wearing a French hat decorated with ostrich features, but not wearing any clothes.

"Posada was saying to these women, 'You don't have anything but you are still wearing a French hat,'" explained Rodriguez.

Posada would continue to produce art depicting skeletons to critique Mexican society, but it was not until decades later that the skeleton he created would become engrained in Mexican culture.

In 1947, famed Mexican painter Diego Rivera created his mural Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central.

The mural includes important figures in Mexican history dressed elegantly while out on a stroll on a Sunday afternoon. At the center, Rivera placed the skeleton holding hands with Rivera himself on one side and Posada on the other.

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As Halloween rolls around, a tradition that dates back thousands of years gets under way in Mexico and other Latin American countries.

"It's almost like he was reaffirming the thought of the original Calavera Garbancera by stating their is a lot of poverty in Mexico but at the same time an excess of riches. So at the end he is saying we are all faking it," said Rodriguez.

Rivera dressed the calavera in elegant clothes and that's how people began referring to the skeleton as La Catrina, a take on the word catrín, which describes someone who is poshly dressed.

Rodriguez speculates La Catrina went from being a purely social critique to grand dame of Day of the Dead when Mexican immigrants in the United States were exposed to Halloween. They began dressing up as skeletons for trick or treating and eventually carried that forward into Day of the Dead celebrations.

Nowadays many people dress up as La Catrina for Día de los Muertos to honor their ancestors and to remind themselves that they are not immortal either.

But Rodriguez said the original message of Posada's skeleton can provide an important lesson as we post images of ourselves on social media.

"José Guadalupe Posada was doing a critique and he was saying how everyone is dressing up and trying to look like something they are not," said Rodriguez. "And that is happening in social media. Everything is happiness and people are trying to appear like something they are not."