José Miguel Covarrubias Duclaud was born 22 November 1904 in Mexico City. After graduating from the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria at the age of 14, he started producing caricatures and illustrations for texts and training materials published by the Mexican Ministry of Public Education. He also worked for the Ministry of Communications.
In 1924, at the age of 19, he moved to New York City armed with a grant from the Mexican government, tremendous talent, but very little English. In her book Covarrubias, author Adriana Williams writes that Mexican poet José Juan Tablada and New York Times critic/photographer Carl Van Vechten introduced him to New York's literary/cultural elite (known as the Smart Set). Soon Covarrubias was drawing for several top magazines, eventually becoming one of Vanity Fair magazine's premier caricaturists.