Calaveritas, The Funny Poetry Tradition That You'll Love During Day Of The Dead

Calaveritas, The Funny Poetry Tradition That You'll Love During Day Of The Dead

By: Oliver G. Alvar -

These Day of the Dead poems, known as Calaveritas, embody the wit and sense of humor Mexicans are known for, and the world surely could use far more of that.

If there ever were two characteristics with which most Mexicans would describe their culture, it’d be wit and creativity. Mexicans pride themselves on being humorously ingenious, and history tends to agree with the sentiment. There are many traditions, quirks, and general idiosyncrasies in Mexican society that keep enchanting the world for their peculiar charm. One among many such examples is the literary calaverita—irreverent verses (or poems) that tackle death with irony, satire, and just plain good humor. 

Oh how clumsy was my neighbor

Who did try so very hard,

She was doing me a favor

When Death dealt her grievous card.

Yes, too clumsy was my neighbor,

But she tried so very hard

‘Till she met the First Engraver

(Left the car, of that I’m glad.)

Example of a calaverita

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Calaverita means “little skull,” and it refers to the images often associated with the production of these day of the dead poems: animated human skeletons depicted in humorous ways. Think of something like a Dapper Skeleton. 

In fact, the very model and prototype of the calaveritas image represents what can very well be the Dapper Skeleton of a female skull dressed in rather fancy attire, originally intended to mock Mexican aristocrats who tried too hard to adopt European customs. The character, La Calavera Catrina, was created by José Guadalupe Posada in the early 20th century and was later baptized (and popularized) by famed muralist Diego Rivera in his 1947 mural Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon along Central Alameda.) 

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(Original engraved image by José Guadalupe Posada, 1913)

The exact origins of the calaveritas are unclear, but most agree they were born as a form of political and social criticism (through the use of humor and satire) that may have derived from the Middle Ages’ Dance Macabre (Dance of Death), an artistic genre which, by means of allegorical representations, was meant to remind people of the universality of death. 

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(The Danse Macabre)

Due to their critical and mocking nature—and since they were generally used to ridicule powerful characters and members of the government—literary calaveritas were often censored up to the nineteenth century. And while the first known and fully recognizable instance of the genre was published in 1849 on a socialist newspaper in Guadalajara, it would take several more decades before the custom was consolidated during the Mexican Revolution (a period of intense political upheaval.) 

Today, these poems are mostly composed to celebrate [and be recited on] Day of the Dead with humorous creativity. They mix life and death freely and as such their drawings often depict dead and living characters as skeletons which feature the person's trademark physical attributes. Additionally, many calaveritas are dedicated to deceased family members and friends as a way to commemorate them and celebrate their life, typically expressing what perhaps wouldn’t have been said while they lived. 

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(Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central, Diego Rivera, 1947. Featuring "The Calavera Catrina")

Composition of calaveritas is a common literary exercise for children in schools throughout Mexico. It’s a great writing challenge to sharpen poetic skills, whether you’re an established writer or an interested enthusiast. Here’s one example.

“Take a shot, foolish Death!”

Said Pedro Jiménez The Tall

As he told all he met

Thinking everyone else was so small.

So dumb was Pedro The Tall

That even after he died

He’d fight in another world’s brawl

With foolish skeleton pride

Wanna take a shot at creating your own calaverita? Just think of someone, either dead or alive, who you want the poem to be about. Tell a funny story about the character: irony works best, but dark humor is welcomed as well. Take care with the number of syllables for each verse: you can use as many as you like, but be consistent. (A good starting point would be to make verses of 4 lines, with about 6 syllables each.) Remember to rhyme each line’s final word. Think of the poem, even with its ironic twist, as a way to honor your character (poke fun, but mean well.)

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Calaveritas are ultimately a way to symbolically reunite the living with the dead and to remind us of the fragility of life itself. These poems can represent the best (and funniest) of Mexican culture and they sure bring an interesting dimension to the Day of the Dead festivities. The world could certainly use more calaveritas.

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