Skull and Cross Hairs: Revolutionary-Era Mexican Broadsides Took Aim at Political Elite

The Newberry’s collection of seven broadsides featuring images of skeletons, known as calaveras, span the years 1910 to 1912 and reveal the political tensions of the revolutionary period in Mexico. These humorous and rebellious penny press texts, which feature song lyrics that lambast local officials and document their downfalls, were distributed by book vendors in stores and stalls around Mexico. Designed by José Guadalupe Posada and printed by Antonio Vanegas Arroyo, the calaveras were printed on thin colorful tissue papers that have retained much of their original tones. The printing press on which the broadsides were made is still in use by Vanegas Arroyo’s family in Mexico City.

Posada’s technique of photo relief etching, when combined with his drawing style, created the look of a woodcut print but took half the time to produce. He provided Venegas Arroyo with multiple plates and images that could be reused to maximize the production of various broadsides.

Posada employed the iconic image of the skeletons in part because they were already popular, although at that time they appeared primarily in the broadsides sold to families visiting cemeteries for the Day of the Dead holiday. By using these images out of context and by portraying the political elite as skeletons, the printmakers parodied the upper classes in Mexico.

Together, Posada and Venegas Arroyo helped to establish a tradition of printing protest broadsides that remains strong in Mexico to this day.

In Chicago, collections of similar Mexican broadsides can also be found in the Special Collections Research Center of the University of Chicago Library and at the Art Institute of Chicago.

This essay was written by Ayer Reference Librarian Seonaid Valiant.