death becomes her

Updated: Nov 4, 2021

November is fast approaching and that means Day of the Dead is almost here! Let’s delve a little deeper into one of the traditions Mexicans have when it comes to this festival.

Calaveras literarias (‘literary skulls’) are poems written during this festive holiday and typically tell the comical story of a friend or family member’s faults or vices - it’s a teasing way to poke fun at loved ones at this time of year. Two years ago, we sat around the table and each wrote a poem about someone sitting opposite us. It was so much fun to get creative and read them back afterwards!

Calaveras were first written in the mid-19th century and made fun of public figures like politicians, criticising their shortcomings and narrating their death in a comical way. They were often censored due to their inflammatory depictions of people in power.

Several decades later, Jose Guadalupe Posada, a famous printmaker and artist, developed the concept further when he wrote satirical poems about public figures accompanied by an intricate illustration of a skeleton. The illustration often took on some of the characteristics of the poem’s subject. One of the first, and now most iconic, was the skeleton ‘Catrina’, a figure of an elegantly dressed woman. Posada used this figure to mock Mexicans who were keen to adopt European customs and appear – in their eyes at least – more sophisticated. Today the Catrina is a global symbol of Day of the Dead, with hundreds dressing as her and lining the streets of Mexico City during the days of the festival.

These poems make fun of death, allowing us to see it in a light-hearted way, which is really the theme running throughout this celebration: death is not something to be feared, but rather something to be laughed at. This festival is unique in that sense: It honours the departed by celebrating life, rather than mourning death.