The Spanish considered Mexico’s relationship with skull imagery to be pagan. Their efforts to belittle it and to make it socially unacceptable found a natural response in the nineteenth century when the independence-minded embraced the skeletons in a gesture of Mexican-ness. Born thirty-one years after independence, José Guadalupe Posada is arguably the modern artist most responsible for the skeleton in popular Mexican imagination. With a long history of political cartoons, engraving, and lithography, his art earned particular attention during the Mexican Revolution. Because much of this creation was political in nature, its passage from historical context has meant that Guadalupe Posada’s name is relatively unknown outside Mexico. Nevertheless, his creation of the Calavera Catrina character -a satirical criticism of the upper-class’s lifestyle during Porfirio Díaz’s government- is arguably his most enduring contribution. In fact, the more internationally-known artist Diego Rivera gave her a place of prominence in his mural Sueño de una tarde dominical en la alameda central. In the painting, Rivera painted Guadalupe Posada at one of Catrina’s sides and, in a tip of the hat that placed himself as the next link in the continuation of a tradition, included a self-portrait of a young Rivera holding her other hand.
This year, the calacas seem to have completed the circle. The evolution from socially unacceptable to popular image of a culture reached a new level in October with the Mexican premier of Pixar’s Coco. Correctly released right before the holiday and a month before it entered theaters in the rest of the world, Mexico embraced this latest representation of their culture. If ticket sales -that very Catrina-esque measure of value- are a good yard stick, then it was a success as Mexicans transformed it not only into the highest grossing animated film in the country’s history, but the biggest earner of any film, ever. Seeing its many skeletons during this holiday period strikes me as a great way to celebrate family and life.