Las Catrinas de José Guadalupe Posada

The Merida English Library (MEL) regularly, well at least quite frequently has Saturday morning Talks.  This past Saturday I was very excited to attend a Talk by Marina Aguirre on Hanal Pixán, or Dia de los Muertos in the rest of Mexico.  Here in the Yucatan it is Hanal Pixan.  Of course to English speakers it is Day of the Dead.

In the MEL literature it stated “…Marina Aguirre will discuss “How the Day of the Dead is celebrated in different areas of Mexico.”

Marina, a Merida resident, has trained as an archaeologist and pursued studies in ethnohistory in the region. She also leads cultural group tours in Mexico and Spanish language studies.”


I have taken Spanish classes from Marina and find the topics take over and I forget I am learning, listening, and speaking in Spanish.

Anyway, the discussion was described to include information on when and where the Day of the Dead began to be celebrated in Mexico, how indigenous celebrations may differ from the official Catholic Church holiday, how celebrations differ from one geographic area to another, and which States have the biggest celebrations. And it did, it was really, really interesting.

While the rest of Mexico celebrates Dia de los Muertos, which is an Aztec tradition infused with Christian beliefs – the Yucatan Peninsula celebrates a different Maya version infused with Catholicism called Hanal Pixán.  Hanal Pixán means  to feed to the souls, or to provide food for the souls. It is similar to Dia de los Muertos  in that the souls of the dead come back to visit and are greeted with decorated altars. The Hanal Pixán alters also contain food, drink, and trinkets to represent the departed’s favorite things.  It is a time when the family comes together and remembers and celebrates the dead.

For me however, the part that stuck out, because I was seriously clueless, was the info about the Catrinas.


José Guadalupe Posada (February 2, 1852 – January 20, 1913), a printmaker and engraver from Aguascalientes was the creator of the calavera, from which the catrina came. As a child Posada learned to draw and worked his way through publishing houses honing his skill.

In the late 1800’s, after a devastating flood destroyed his own printhouse in Leon Guanajuato, Posada and his wife, Maria de Jesús Vela  moved to  Mexico City.  Here Posada went to work for La Patria Ilustrada, whose editor was Ireneo Paz, the grandfather of the later famed writer Octavio Paz.

It was somewhere around 1900, after Posada joined the publishing house of Antonio Vanegas Arroyo  that he became quite well known for his creation of calaveras. Most of these calaveras were published as  inexpensive literature for the lower classes, including thousands of satirical broadsides (leaflets) which Posada illustrated.     

calavera coyote

“Coyotes (conmen) and waitress calaveras” – a broadside showing a cat, with a skull for a face, standing on its hind legs holding two skulls. The text, in calavera verse*, conveys how waitresses are out to get customers once they are drunk, and also how conmen go for any man’s money (1919)

Although they assumed various costumes, one that we recognize and associate with today is the Calavera de la Catrina, the “Female Dandy”.  La Catrina was meant to ridicule, or satirize the ‘common’ people affecting the clothing and ideals of the Upper Classes during the reign of Porfirio Díaz. The elegant clothing  on the skeleton could also be thought represent  the loss of true self (the indigenous self) by posing as upper class europeans.


Although most of his imagery was meant to make a religious or satirical point his images have become associated with the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos.

Because of its satirical acuteness and social engagement Posadas art became a major influence of the artists of the time. One of those artists was Diego Rivera.  Rivera did a mural representing a catrina standing  next to José Guadalupe Posada. It is Diegos tribute to Posadas memory, if you look closely, and know of Mexicos past and politics you will recognize many of the figures.  That is Posada with the cane, next to catrina


Posada died unknown, unrecognized, and in poverty.   Posada’s engravings were brought given a rebirth in the 1920s when French artist Jean Charlot encountered them while visiting Diego Rivera.  in 1925 in Revista de Revistas, Charlot wrote about  Jose Guadalupe Posada, this brought Posada to the attention of the art world, where his images are now well known as examples of  Mexican Folk Art.

There is some speculation that the use of catrinas during Dia de los Muertos and Hanal Pixán came about to create equality amongst the dead, depicting them equally and not showcasing a lack of materialism.

bones divider

*CALAVERA Voice, aka calaveritas

Calaveritas are poems or rhymes written about the dead  – to remember and sometimes make fun of relatives, friends, politicians, etc.

Here is a calaverita to show an example.  I think it must lose a lot in translation

Calaveras de maestros

Estaba la maestra Marta fumándose un cigarillo

llegó la muerte y le dijo te acompaño con el humillo

pues yo ya no puedo fumar y si sigue así

le pasará lo mismo que a mí.

Estaba la pobre muerte angustiada por los salones

porque la maestra le dio malas calificaciones.


Martha the teacher is smoking a cigarette

Death comes and says “let me smoke with you” (let me join you)

for I cannot smoke anymore, and if you go on like that,

same thing will happen to you.

Poor Death was all sad in the classroom

because the teacher gave her a bad grades.

Notice that in Spanish there is rhyme, which we lose in translation

Cigarrillo/humillo (diminutive for humo, smoke)

Así / mí

Salones/ calificaciones



About Debi in Merida

I moved from Colorado Springs, Colorado USA to Merida, Yucatan, MX in January 2006. I love to read, garden, travel, and hang out with friends.
This entry was posted in Everyday Stuff and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Las Catrinas de José Guadalupe Posada

  1. robin young says:

    Loved this, Debi–interesting! Thanks. XoRobin

  2. Daniel Perry says:

    Great information. We live in New Mexico, USA, and have Catrinas all over the house! We love dia del muerto. My Mexican partner lights a candle over some of the graves on our land that day.

  3. Great post Debi – I wish I had been here for Marina’s talk 🙂

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