Perhaps you have seen her represented in some tattoos or have aroused your curiosity as a result of a photograph or a movie, but La Catrina is a much older Mexican symbol than that. We explain the origins and meaning of this popular figure that has crossed borders: living death or La Catrina , the Mexican skull.

  • It may interest you: 10 customs and traditions of Mexico that you have to know.

Origin of La Catrina
The first thing you should know is that La Catrina is not the original name of this popular figure. It was Diego Rivera, a Mexican muralist and lover of Frida Kahlo for a decade, who coined the name. Returning to the origins, we have to go back to the work of Jose Guadalupe Posada , an illustrator and caricaturist from the end of the 19th century who was very critical of the socio-political panorama of the time. La Calavera Garbancera de Jose Guadalupe Posada
Posada began his career as an apprentice in a lithographic workshop, carving engravings on decorative objects, but soon became part of an artistic movement that mixed drawings and satirical writings.. This is how he came to collaborate with important media in the country such as El Padre Cobos, El Ahuizote or La Patria Ilustrada, battle diaries that collected satires starring skeletons and skulls.
Most of these “skulls” (as this journalistic piece is also known) are influenced by the Day of the Dead, a tradition of the Mexican people to remember the deceased at the beginning of November. The most recognized is the one that appears in the engraving Remate de Calaveras Alegres, a mockery of the indigenous peoples who wanted to leave their Mexican customs behind . Posada’s illustration reads as follows: “Those that today are powdered chickpeas will end up in deformed skulls.”
La Catrina as La Calavera Garbancera, depicted in an engraving by Posada. | Image from: Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut.
As for their name, the “garbanceros” were indigenous people who sold chickpeas and other products of the land and who, as a result of their gentrification during the military period of Porfirio Diaz , renounced their traditions to adapt to the European way of life. La Catrina by Diego Rivera
Then came the muralist Diego Rivera, well into the 20th century, with his work Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central. In this painting we can see several artists, including a child version of Diego Rivera himself with Frida Kahlo, and on the right, Jose Guadalupe Posada. Right in the center we can see a complete representation of La Catrina.
Mural by Diego Rivera where La Catrina appears. | Image by: Diego Rivera.
There is some confusion about who coined the term, but everything seems to indicate that it was Rivera who baptized it that way, despite the fact that we absolutely owe the concept to Posada. What does La Catrina mean?
For Posada, the Calavera Garbancera is a satire of social and political changes, while these indigenous people despised their origins and customs and tried to Europeanize their society. For them, it was a way to modernize the country, but for artists like Posada, it was a complete mistake. However, the drawing also represents the carefree and festive character of the Mexican people, the celebration of death as part of life .
“Death is democratic, since in the end, fair, dark, rich or poor, all people end up being skulls.”
For Diego Rivera, the Mexican skull does not cease to have a political meaning, although he gives it a new artistic meaning and praises it as a typical image of the country’s culture.
Currently, the image of La Catrina is related to the attitude of the Mexican people towards death. She is a symbol of the spiritual wealth of the country , this being one of the figures that currently parades through the streets during the festivities. It is in the city of Aguascalientes where it is most represented, especially during the Skull Fair on the Day of the Dead. La Catrina in popular culture
Although this figure emerges from the popular culture of Mexico, La Catrina has crossed borders to be represented in works around the world. The mysticism conveyed by this image, a skeleton in a burlesque pose decked out in 19th-century French costumes, arouses admiration and curiosity in equal measure.
Happy Day of the Dead Catrina Gray GIF from Diademuertos GIFs
Similarly, she has starred in several short films and movies , such as Hasta los ojos de Rene Castillo or La Catrina en tajinera, a short released to commemorate the centenary of her birth. More recently, she has had representation in the animated film The Book of Life, and to a lesser extent in the successful Disney Pixar film Coco.

  • You can also read: 10 surprising (and terrifying) Mexican myths.

Dream Analysis of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Central. Proa Foundation.
Mexican prints Jose Guadalupe Posada (1854-1913). Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut.
It was Diego Rivera who baptized “La Catrina”, not Posada. Presidency of the Republic. February 3, 2009. Mexico City.