Satirical Calaveras and the Day of the Dead

The Day of the Dead festival has long inspired artists across Mexico and the United States. While the iconography of death is part of celebrations, it has also been used for political satire. José Guadalupe Posada was one such satirist who was influenced by death.

In the twentieth century, armed with pen, paper, and a sense of humor, Posada transformed the calavera, using it to poke fun at Mexican society. (A calavera, a representation of a human skull, is often applied to decorative or edible skulls made from sugar or clay during Day of the Dead.) Posada’s humorous illustrations depict various political topics during the revolutionary period in Mexico and also include poems reminiscent of Mexican corridos, songs often about oppression, history, daily life for peasants, and other social issues.

Posada’s most famous character was La Catrina, the mother of all calaveras. Originally named La Calavera Garbancera—a term used in Posada’s day for native Mexicans who scorned their culture and tried to pass as European—La Catrina mocked people like Porfirio Díaz, a president known for denying his Mixteco indigenous roots.

In fact, the Day of the Dead festival itself has many indigenous roots. The term Micailhuitl designates the celebration of death as a natural passing of life from a physical state to a spiritual one. Micailhuitl was more than a celebration; it was a ritual that invoked and commemorated the people who had departed to one of four places that the tonalli (soul or spirit) could go according to the worldview of the indigenous people of Mexico. The origins of the Day of the Dead celebration can be traced back to Miccailhutontli, “the grand feast of the dead,” where Mictecacihuatl, the “Lady of the Dead,” presided over the festival and the afterlife. During the 20-day indigenous festival in Mexico, ritual, sacrifice, feast, dance, and offerings of cempoalxochitl flowers, fire, copal, food, and drink were made to the departed.

The Newberry has seven beautiful broadsides created by Posada between the years 1903 and 1913 that reveal the influence of indigenous culture on later conceptions of death. One, featuring La Catrina, is accompanied by a poem that begins, “Las que hoy son empolvadas garbanceras pararan en deformes Calaveras,” which can be translated as: “Those garbanceras who today are coated with makeup will end up as deformed skulls.” This line describes a person who was ashamed of their indigenous origins and dressed in the French style while wearing makeup to make their skin look lighter.

Broadside No. 4, “Los Sueños de las posadas” (“Dreams of Posada”) offers an interesting intermingling of indigenous and European Spanish iconography. It depicts dream-like imagery of people gathering around a campfire, a nativity scene with the three magi in procession, two scenes of skeleton couples dancing, and a scene of three individuals in front of the mouth of hell while the text mentions foods such as tejote (which is native to Mexico and comes from the nahuatl “tetl [stone]-xóctl [fruit]”.)

Indeed, the merging of indigenous and European Spanish ideologies can be seen in the timing of the celebration itself. The Day of the Dead was previously celebrated on the month of August but is now concentrated on two days—November 1, the Catholic feast day of All Saints Day, and November 2, the remembrance of All Souls Day. Several towns across Mexico also remember their departed children, or “little angels,” on October 31. During this time in November, altars are prepared to honor the souls of the dead, families visit the cemetery, clean the graves, arrange fresh flowers, prepare foods, and pray for those no longer among us.

The earliest Spanish accounts of honoring the dead were chronicled by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún in book 3.5 of the General history of the things of New Spain: Florentine codex and reveal the indigenous roots of the festival. For example, during Panquetzalitzli, the 15th month on the Aztec (Mexica) calendar, the Mexica created images out of wood covered in Tzoalli, or amaranth seed dough, shaped into a human form:

“And when he died, they broke up his body, the amaranth seed dough. His heart was Moctezuma’s portion. And the rest of his members, which were made like his bones, were disseminated among the people…And of this which they ate it was said, ‘the god is eaten.'”

Today pan de muerto (dead bread), is a type of sweet roll, often decorated with bone-shaped phalanges pieces, traditionally baked in Mexico during the weeks leading up to Day of the Dead—yet another example of early Mesoamerican beliefs merging with contemporary ones.

By Analú López, Ayer Indigenous Studies Librarian-in-Residence