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HISTORY - Jose Guadalupe Posada: The Price of Political Satire

Updated: Nov 24, 2023

Political Satire has always been dangerous, but thankfully the efforts of certain revered celebrities, such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, have ensured that the incredible works of satire cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada, who died broke and in obscurity, would become legendary in Mexico.

Born on February 2, 1852 in Aguascaliente, Posada was schooled by his brother, Cirilo, who ran an elementary school. He learned reading, writing and drawing, and later enrolled in La Academia Municipal de Dibujo de Aguascalientes. By 1868, when Posada was merely 16 years old, he apprenticed in the workshop of Jose Trinidad Pedroza, who taught him lithography and engraving.

By 1871, Posada was working for El Jicote Newspaper as a political cartoonist. Sadly, after only 11 editions, one of Posada´s cartoons offended a local and powerful politician, and the consequences were severe as the newspaper was shut-down.

A leaflet that contained this image by Jose Guadalupe Posada read “From this famous hippodrome on the racetrack, not even a single journalist is missing. Death is inexorable and doesn’t even respect those that you see here on bicycle.”

Though published much later, between 1895-1913, this illustration was in response to censorship in Mexico: "Each skull had the name of a newspaper and an accessory that served as an allegory for it. For instance, toward the left edge, there was La Voz de México with a skull dressed in black holding the scythe of death; El Universal carried a kind of crown of celestial bodies; El Tiempo had wings, like Chronos; Partido Liberal wore a Phrygian cap; Gil Blas was dressed as an intellectual with a feather hat; and Siglo XIX wore a top hat. There were also smaller skulls that represented independent newspapers La Casera, Fandango, Siglo XX, and Quijote. Both the size of the skulls and the newspapers chosen by Posada—many of them no longer in existence at the beginning of the 20th century—suggest that the cartoonist was criticizing the condescension of the big newspapers of the Mexican elite during the regime of Porfirio Díaz. In the first few years of the 20th century, the regime toughened its censorship of independent or opposition press in order to remain in power. With his characteristic sarcastic humor, Posada predicted the decline of all these newspapers" -

Following the closing of El Jicote in Aguascalientes, Posada and his mentor and teacher Pedroza moved to Leon, Guanajuato in 1872. They set up a shop, and Posada worked as a lithography teacher. He met and married Maria de Jesus Vela in 1875, and in 1876 he purchased the printing press from Pedroza. Between 1875 -1888, Posada collaborated with La Gacetilla, El Pueblo Caotico and La Education newspapers in Leon. Vela and Posada`s only son, Juan Sabino Posada Vela, was born in 1883.

On June 18, 1888, great tragedy struck Leon, in the form of a major flood. It is theorized Posada lost family members during the flood, and there were 250 bodies recovered, with a further 1400 people reported missing. This flood also damaged Posada´s workshop. Historical notes confirm that Posada was already in contact with several publishers in Mexico City, and his subsequent move to the capital was likely a response to the damage his workshop had sustained.

La Inundacion de Leon - Flood of June 18, 1888

Antonio Vanegas Arroyo (1852-1917) owned a publishing house in Mexico City, and it is believed Posada began working there as early as 1889. It´s an interesting note that one important attribute of Posada´s work, was his detailed symbolisms that could tell a story without the need for words. In 1910, Mexico´s literacy rate was reported to only be 32% among adults. Scholars believe Vanegas Arroyo hired Posada as his chief illustrator, as he understood his maket and knew literacy deficiency among the local populous was problematic for high readership. Vanegas Arroyo employed a skilled illustrator named Manuel Manilla (1830?-1895?), and though he was twenty years older than Posada, and an established engraver, his work was classic, while Posada´s illustrations were detailed, animated and creative. His work required no words, as even the illiterate understood the political climate of their time, and were represented in images that depicted the ills of poverty, unjust political leaders, mainly Porfirio Diaz, major events, religious allegories, and above all, criticism of the oppressive policies of government, over the people.

La Garbancera or La Cucaracha was later called La Catrina by famous Mexican Muralist Diego Rivera

Between 1910-1913, Jose Guadalupe Posada was particularly prolific, engraving depictions of the Mexican Revolution. He played an important role during the Presidency of Francisco I Madero, and the campaign of Emiliano Zapata. Historians are unsure as to the date of his creation of La Garbancera, or La Cucuracha, though most agree she was conceived in 1912 and published in 1913, not long before Posada´s death. It was Diego Rivera who later coined her as La Catrina, when he painted the famous "Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park" in 1947. Posada´s intention behind her image was one of mockery and condescension of those who seek to live outside of their financial means, often spending all of their money on expensive clothes, rather than housing or food.

As with so many activists, who spend their lives fighting for the underdogs and witnessing unjust governments exploiting the most vulnerable of society, Jose Guadalupe Posada suffered from alcoholism, most likely amplified by depression. By the end of his career, which ended abruptly in 1913 when he passed away at 60 years of age from gastroenteritis brought on by years of alcoholism, Posada had produced more than 20,000 images for prints, pamphlets and chapbooks. It is problematic that probably only around 1000 images are signed, leaving critics to question the legitimacy of the bulk of his body of work. Posada was buried without notice, in an unmarked grave in Mexico City´s famous Dolores Cemetery.

Dance of the 41 Faggots - 1901. (Though there are only 12 men in this image) This must have been very controversial for it´s time. Aside from this image representing the gay community, scholars believe this is possibly the earliest depiction of Drag Queens ever seen in Mexico. I could not find any references as to whether or not Posada rejected homosexuality, but thought this was quite a profound illustration for 1901. Frida Kahlo was well known for bisexuality, and was a fan of Posada´s work. My guess is that Posada never made any criticisms of the gay community known, one way or the other. Interesting to note the orchestra are comprised of skeletons.

In the 1920´s, French born Mexican artist Jean Charlot was the first to popularize the works of Jose Guadalupe Posada. In 1929, Anita Brenner published a book called Ïdols behind Altars,¨which had illustrations by Posada. She referred to Posada as a prophet, and credited him as representing the peasants and workers of Mexico. US Author Frances Toor published a book entitled Posada: Grabador Mexicano, which was the first monograph about Posada, published in 1930. Diego Rivera commented on 406 prints by Posada, in the Forward. in 1933, Frida Kahlo would hang a selection of Posada´s prints in her hotel room in New York City. Leopoldo Mendez later reproduced over 900 of Posada´s illustrations.

Perhaps what gave Jose Guadalupe Posada his greatest claim to fame, was Diego Riveras mural, which featured La Catrina as the central and only supernatural subject among very famous celebrities and politicians of Mexico. Rivera was the first to give a full body to Catrina, as La Garbancera was only ever shown as a bust image. Later inducted as an iconic symbol of Dia de Muertos, La Catrina remains Posada´s most famous contribution, and has established his well deserved honour as one of Mexico´s most influential artists.

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