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Message of the calaveras — enjoy it while it lasts

March 4, 2015

Laughing all the way to the left bank of the river Styx.

Last week I came across this neat (if a bit macabre) little boxed display of two skeletons all dressed up like they were out to have a good time — as if the dead can dance!

You can’t take it with you, right? So I left it where I found it, right on top of the fork pocket of a dumpster in an alley off 15th Avenue and Fir Street.

The colourful tableau was a retablo, a kind of Latin American folk art employing traditional Catholic imagery, such as the grinning skeletons or calavera, which I recognized specifically from Mexican art.

The calavera are an emblem of human mortality and (apparently) a reminder that undue pride in worldly possessions should look just as ridiculous to Christians as the spectacle of dead bones dressing up and acting like living people.

The image of gaily-dressed calavera is now closely associated with with the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos, the “Day of the Dead“.

But I associate them with José Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican artist, print-maker and political satirist of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Bringing the dead back to life

Left to right: Diego Rivera (as child)l Frieda Kahlo, the Catarina Calavera and Jose Posada. -- Diego Rivera, Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park (1947)

Left to right: Diego Rivera (as child)l Frida Kahlo, La Calavera Catrina and José Posada. — Diego Rivera, Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park (1947)

In his nearly 50-year career, José Posada produced thousands of zinc etchings to illustrate book covers, posters and especially popular broadsides of news and current events.

Posada’s illustration style was as simple and direct as his largely illiterate audience and he often used well-known folk imagery to good effect. The calavera lives today in Mexican culture because Posada breathed new life into the traditional devotional image.

Posada frequently used calavaras like arrows in his satirical attacks on the dandified upper crust that flourished under the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz.

La Calavera Catrina (1910–1913)

La Calavera Catrina (1910–1913)

The engraving that Posada is perhaps best known for: La Calavera Catrina, was created between 1910 and the year he died, 1913. This calavera was instantly recognizable as a satire of the upper class Mexican women who adopted the European styles of the day and were nicknamed catrinas.

Posada remained largely anonymous to his audience and though his engravings were hugely influential in helping to spark a rebirth in Mexican art, the man himself died in poverty and was buried in a pauper’s grave.

Only after his death did a younger generation of artists (particularly the French artist Jean Charlot and the Mexican Muralist Diego Rivera) give Posada much of the credit that he had been due in life.


Diego Rivera notably paid tribute to José Posada by placing hime at the very centre of the 1947 mural: Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park — arm-in-arm with La Calavera Catrina.

The bass-ackwards fact that Posada’s calavera all outlived him and are the only things keeping his reputation alive is just the sort of irony that calaveras exist to illustrate. Click the images to enlarge them.


A Mexican 50 Peso note that I found yesterday in a dumpster.

A friend from El Salvador explained to me that it took about 10 of the Mexican 50-Peso notes I found just to buy a soda pop in Mexico.

Wow! I thought at the time but now I think he might have gotten it a bit mixed up if not backwards.

According to the Internet, in Mexico today, a 0.33 litre bottle of Coke/Pepsi costs only 10.18 MXN (Can$0.84) so you could buy a pop and have plenty of change left over — well, my friend from El Salvador could. Who do you think I gave the “worthless” 50-Peso note to? D’oh!

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