CALAVERITAS: Skull Literature
En la taquería se encontraba Juanita
con su chonga peinada se miraba bonita
estaba comiendo unos tacos con salsa
cuando llegó la huesuda y la agarró de la panza.*
In Mexico, Dia de los Muertos—Day of the Dead, brings with it many rituals and traditions. Depictions of death are everywhere: Catrins and Catrinas, an abundance of marigolds, colored sand images on the floor or the ground, candles, special bread called pan de muertos—bread of the dead, and perforated paper decorations called papel picado. There is yet another tradition which dates back more than a century, and involves literature. A particular type of poetry is written and recited during this time, called calaveritas—the diminutive of skull, and they are part of a literary tradition popular in Mexico. Often, the poem is accompanied by a drawing of skulls and skeletons—calaveras y calacas.
The use of skeletons in art became popular through the plague years in Europe, when people began to believe the dead could rise from their graves, and draw any unlucky passersby into a ghoulish dance of death in the cemetery. The idea of the Danse Macabre—the ghoulish dance, became widespread, and it appeared in many paintings and murals. They reminded people of the fragility of life and that nobody escapes death; but they were also a call to prepare your soul for the afterlife.
It should not surprise us that displays of death were common; after all, death was an everyday occurrence in those earlier centuries. Thousands died because of common illnesses, endemic outbreaks of infectious diseases, and the continuous wars throughout Europe. Starvation, maternal, and infant death was quotidian, and people became used to losing their loved ones early, and often. Plays featuring death were performed and, just as black humor acts as a release for those in unbearable circumstances, these plays offered the public a release, and a demonstration that everyone suffered the same. Everyone—from pope to commoner child, would be forced into death’s waiting arms.
Virtually every culture has made use of images of death—as skeletons, skulls, gods or goddesses, or other representative figures like the Grim Reaper. In most cultures the depiction is a bleak reminder of mortality, and a symbol of doom. However, in Mexico, the use of these images is an affirmation of life during Dia de los Muertos. One is encouraged to celebrate the life of the departed, not to cry for their absence: “Tears are shed for the living. We never shed tears for the dead. We must be very careful that no tears drop on this day because it would make the road slippery, and dangerous for the souls on their journey.” Dia de los Muertos is a commemoration, and a tribute to the departed, but it is also a celebration filled with joy.
This brings us back to the original theme—the Calaveras literarias, and specifically the calaveritas. Like the Danse Macabre which shows that death does not respect hierarchy, and that playfulness with death can be an outlet for grief; the calaveritas have a similar purpose. They are playful, satirical epitaphs in verse, for someone who is still alive. We could think of them as epitaphic roasts. First published in Mexico in the 1850s, they were most likely prompted by the long, ostentatious epitaphs written for noblemen and clergy. Calaveritas turn the idea on its head. Instead of eulogizing an individual, as tradition would demand, the verses use sarcasm and derision toward the individual portrayed. A calaverita pokes fun at their profession, hobby, or passion, and speaks about their future death, somehow connected to what they find most important in their lives. Here is an example.
In las plazas grandes and cozy small bars
Mariachis are famous for playing guitars.
The most hateful critic finds himself compliant
When hearing guitars which are really quite giant.
“Bigger is better!” the musicians say
So mas y mas grow the guitars that they play.
And that’s where they found Juan, a guitar big and wide
Fell on him, and crushed him, and that’s how he died.
The form is easy. A calaverita is comprised of four-line, rhyming stanzas, and uses death images—the Catrina, cemetery, candles, flowers, and so on. It begins with a description of the individual, most frequently mocking them for what they do, or care for. It ends with the potential way this person might die, often in a humorous way. A writer might die stabbed by his own pen, or a swimmer might drown in a small fishbowl. The more outrageous and funny, the better. Calaveritas were, and still are used to mock politicians, the rich, or anyone in power. The individual must be alive. But a calaverita can also eulogize an idea or an object. One could speak of the death of civility, or something like the phone booth. The subjects are limitless. Here is another.
Down at the cantina,
they’re shedding big tears—
in mourning because
someone killed a few beers.
Now it’s your turn to create a calaverita! You could just share it with family and friends, but there is another option, make it public. Atencion San Miguel is having a calaverita contest for both Spanish and English entries. This might be a good time to try your poetic, mocking style, and “honor” someone with a fake eulogy.
*Here is a loose translation of the first calaverita quoted at the start of the article (taking some poetic license for rhymes):
Juanita was visiting a taco stand
She thought she was so pretty, she thought she was grand
Eating tacos with salsa that were so yummy
Until death came and grabbed her by the tummy