As prescribed by Paulina Constancia

Conversational Calaveras 2: Poetic Obituaries for the Living

Today we look into CALAVERAS – named after the Spanish word for skull, but are actually poetic obituaries – not for the dead  but for those very much alive! A lot of this satirical poetry appear around the Day of the Dead in Mexico.


Info via vashonsd.org

Calavera refers to imaginary obituaries (obituaries are short notices in newspapers announcing deaths of people known by the readers), which appear on newspaper broadsides all over Mexico. Poetic obituaries, or Calaveras, humorously criticize well-known individuals who are very much alive.

Calaveras are usually considered “popular” literature, that is, literature which is easily understood and appreciated by the majority of people and which deals with topics of tangible, immediate concern. Because of their popular nature, Calaveras are a very effective, far-reaching means of bringing about moral and political reform. Moreover, they promote a useful reflection of the feelings of ordinary people at the time they are written.


Jose Guadalupe Posada, “Gran fandango y francachela de todas las calaveras” – 1913
Image via theartchive


The origins of CALAVERAS
Info via  phs

1. The Mexican ‘calavera’ resembles the pasquín of Spain (an anonymous written attack posted publicly); possibly bought to Central America via Hernán Cortés.

2. Cortés once composed a pasquín to respond to some insulting graffiti, which had been written about him.

3. In 1847 Mexico’s first illustrated newspaper appeared under the name of El Calavera. Because of the approach of the newspaper, which was highly critical of the existing government, its editors were arrested within a short time and the paper closed.

4. Calaveras became especially popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Mexican revolution inspired the writing of many calaveras criticizing the revolutionaries under Francisco Madero as well as the deposed government of Porfirio Díaz. In 1910, a calavera which was highly critical of Díaz and his cabinet (and governments in general) appeared on a broadside:

Es la vida pasajera
Y todos pelan el diente,
Aquí está la calavera,
Del que ha sido presidente.
También la de Don Ramón
Y todos sus subalternos
Son como Buenos Gobiernos
Calaveras del montón.

Life is short
And everyone makes the most of it.
Here is the calavera,
Of the one who was president
Also the one of Don Ramon
And all his subordinates
They’re like good governments
Calaveras in a heap

Note:  Most of the information circulating on the internet about the origins of the Calavera -have used this reference:
Robert V. Childs and Patricia B. Altman, Vive tu Recuerdo: Living Traditions in the Mexican Days of the Dead (California: University of California, 1982).


Posada illustrations and calaveras

Examples of Posada’s Calaveras and Illustrations
via pasadenalibrary


Info via phs

Many calaveras were written about the individuals in a given profession. Butchers, teachers, priests, housekeepers, artists, mail carriers, and shopkeepers were all satirized by writers of calaveras. The following calavera is about barbers.


Image by Lonica Lee

Barbero del Barrio

Muchas prodigios hiciste
Con el pelo y con la barba,
Por eso no se te escarba
Las losa en que sucumbiste:
Algunas cortadas diste
A la gente pasajara,
Mas ahora por tu tontera
Yaces dentro una mortaja,
Con tijeras y navaja
Para tuzar calaveras.

Neighborhood Barber

You performed many miracles
With beards and hair,
So you don’t care
that You’re underground:
You gave some cuts
To people passing by,
And now for your stupidity
You’re wrapped in a shroud,
With a razor and some scissors
To trim calaveras.


How to write a “calavera on the job”
Info via phs

1. Chosen profession:

2. What do people in this profession do?

3. What are people in this profession like? Do they make a great deal of money? Are they respected? How do they feel about themselves? Why are they in this profession?

4. What could you criticize about this profession?

5. What is amusing about this profession and the people in it?

diagram-for writing calavera about barber

An example of a diagram to aid in writing a ‘calavera on the job”
Image via phs


Sherri Nelson-kiss_the_ring.w1800h900

Kiss the Ring
Day of the Dead painting by Sherri Nelson


Here’s an anonymous calavera in Antonio Rodriguez’s Posada: El artista que retrató a una época (México: Editorial Domes, 1978). p. 26
via phs

El Pontífice romano,
Y todos los concejales,
Y el jefe de la Nación
En la tumba son iguales.
Calaveras del montón.

The Holy Roman Pope
And all the council people,
And the leader of the Nation
In the tomb they’re all equal.
Skeletons in a pile.

What about making your own CALAVERA?


Skull at the Mirror
Oil painting by Jeffrey Schreckengost
via thelongwayhomediaires


image for headerSo do…try making a calavera (poetic obituary) for yourself or for someone you are fond of, and see what you come up with. It’s a great way to flex your poetic muscle and also a reminder of our finite existence and the importance of being honest, kind and humble while we trod amongst the living.

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This entry was posted on October 28, 2014 by in Communicate, Create and tagged , .
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