Meet the Man Who Created the Iconic Emblem of the Day of the Dead: José Guadalupe Posada

Odds are you’re acquaint­ed with the lady pic­tured above.

She’s called La Cat­ri­na, and her like­ness adorns count­less t‑shirts and tote bags.

She is a pop­u­lar Hal­loween cos­tume and a main­stay of Day of the Dead cel­e­bra­tions.

She pops up in the ani­mat­ed fam­i­ly fea­ture, Coco, to guide its young hero to the Land of the Dead. 

She’s spent the bet­ter part of a cen­tu­ry mak­ing cameos in numer­ous artists works, most famous­ly Diego Rivera’s sur­re­al 1947 mur­al, Sueño de una Tarde Domini­cal en la Alame­da Cen­tral, a fever dream that places her front and cen­ter, arm in arm with a dis­tin­guished-look­ing, mus­ta­chioed gent in a bowler hat.

That gent is her orig­i­nal cre­ator, José Guadalupe Posa­da, a hard­work­ing print­mak­er and polit­i­cal car­toon­ist who pro­duced over 20,000 images dur­ing his life­time, on sub­jects rang­ing from the Mex­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion and oth­er events, both cur­rent and his­tor­i­cal, to pop­u­lar enter­tain­ment and the dai­ly lives of aver­age men and women. 

The artist fre­quent­ly ham­mered his point home by depict­ing the par­ties in his works as calav­eras - exu­ber­ant skele­tons seem­ing­ly unaware they had lost all flesh and blood. 

Posa­da was still a teenag­er in 1871 when a home­town paper picked up his first car­toons. One report­ed­ly enraged a local politi­cian to such a degree that the paper was forced to cease pub­li­ca­tion.

La Cat­ri­na was pub­lished posthu­mous­ly in 1913, as a broad­sheet illus­tra­tion accom­pa­ny­ing a satir­i­cal poem about chick­pea ven­dors. It’s believed that Posa­da intend­ed his image to be a jab at upper class Mex­i­can women obsessed with Euro­pean fash­ions.

(Rivera was the one who changed her name from La Cucaracha — the cock­roach — to the much more lyri­cal La Cat­ri­na. He also plant­ed the seed that Posa­da, who died pen­ni­less and large­ly for­got­ten, had been a rev­o­lu­tion­ary. The Mex­i­can pro­gres­sive print­mak­ing col­lec­tive El Taller Grafi­ca Pop­u­lar took graph­ic inspi­ra­tion from his calav­eras, while embrac­ing and dis­sem­i­nat­ing this myth.

What’s that they say about imi­ta­tion being the sin­cer­est form of flat­tery?

After Posada’s death, his col­leagues at the pub­lish­ing firm of Anto­nio Vane­gas Arroy­or, saved time and mon­ey by con­tin­u­ing to pro­duce work from his blocks and plates. 

As Jim Nikas, found­ing direc­tor of the Posa­da Art Foun­da­tion told Atlas Obscu­ra “If the image was neu­tral enough, you could change the text and use it as an illus­tra­tion for any sto­ry.”

Whether increas­ing pub­lic aware­ness of harm­ful agri­cul­tur­al pes­ti­cides, protest­ing Amer­i­can immi­gra­tion poli­cies, or, uh, sell­ing tequi­la, 21st cen­tu­ry artists, activists, and entre­pre­neurs con­tin­ue to har­ness Posada’s vision for their own pur­pos­es.

Nikas, who sam­pled Posada’s La Calav­era de Don Quixote for an Occu­py Wall Street col­lab­o­ra­tion with Art Hazel­wood and Mar­sha Shaw writes that “the calav­era is some­thing we all have bio­log­i­cal­ly in com­mon and, accord­ing­ly, may be used to con­vey mes­sages:

Posa­da and his pub­lish­ers used depic­tions of calav­eras not only to remind us of our col­lec­tive mor­tal­i­ty but also to shed light. His illus­tra­tions were often satir­i­cal car­i­ca­tures uproot­ed from the cur­rent polit­i­cal cli­mate and used to poke fun at our human con­di­tion. This use was evo­lu­tion­ary, occur­ring over time, and as applic­a­ble today as it was over a cen­tu­ry ago.

See more of José Guadalupe Posada’s calav­eras in the Library of Con­gress’ Prints and Pho­tographs Divi­sion col­lec­tion.

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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