Calaveritas Literarias: Lampooning Death In Verse

Written By Abigail Guerrero

Abigail Guerrero is an aroace and ESL/EFL author based in Mexico. When she's not reading or writing speculative fiction, she can be found watching anime, playing video games, or petting her cats. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bloodless, Drabbledark Vol. III, Bitter Become the Fields, Simultaneous Times, and Radon Journal, and it has been nominated for two BSFA awards.

Here’s a truth that most aspiring authors wouldn’t dare to admit: I wasn’t a bookworm kid.

Outside of the textbooks I had to read at school, I barely read any books before I was nine years old. And I only became a reader after deciding I wanted to be a writer.

It occurred when I was in fourth grade, Día de Muertos was coming and a teacher whose name I’ve already forgotten told the class to write a poem about Death. And it had to be about the death of someone we knew. What’s more, it had to be funny. And in the half-hour break that the teacher gave us to each write a deadly verse, I wrote six. It was in the middle of this first writing sprint that I understood what I wanted to be. But this essay isn’t about my writerly journey. No, this one is about the morbid and always hilarious art that inspired me to take this path.

Calaveritas literarias, named after the skull illustrations that often accompany them, are short narrative poems where the protagonist is always Death. But Death is not alone. In each and every piece, she will come to the land of the living to harvest someone’s soul. That someone can be either a fictional character or a real person; the only condition is that, by the end of this little tale-in-verse, they shall be dead.

And yes, you read that right: Death is female.

In Spanish, muerte is a feminine noun, and here in Mexico she’s often represented as a skeleton woman who wears a long, multi-colored dress with flowers and a feather hat. This representation has its origin in the early 20th century when cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada created a character called La Calavera Garbancera (The Chickpea-picker Skull) to mock the Mestizo and Indigenous people who denied their origins and pretended to identify with the upper-class, white and European. They were starving to death, but well-dressed. The character was later renamed La Catrina, as the feminine form of El Catrín—a rich, snobbish person who always wears fancy clothes—and over time it evolved into a symbol of the Día de Muertos and Death.

But La Catrina is not her only name.

You can also call her La Parca, La Muerte, or La Huesuda. Whatever you like the most.

Or better yet, the way it fits the best with your calaverita’s rhythm.

Because calaveritas literarias are formal poetry. That’s to say, there are some rules worth considering when writing them. Here, I want to make an aside to say that I would personally love to read more free-verse calaveritas, in experimental and hybrid formats, but in this essay, I will stick to the traditional guidelines.

Firstly, the calaverita must have a maximum length of one page. This is because they were originally meant to be shared in newspapers or by sticking them on walls and bulletin boards. But we will go deeper into this subject later, when I tell you about the calaveritas as a form of protest. For now, let’s continue with the meters.

Calaveritas are regularly composed of one, two, or three four-line stanzas, or quatrains, with common rhyme schemes such as ABAB, ABBA, ABCB, ABAA, or AABB. This simple structure was probably designed to make calaveritas accessible to people without literary training, and it’s surely the reason why my childish mind found them so delightful: they are easy to write and easy to enjoy.

It’s in this joy that we find the last and most important rule: calaveritas have to be fun. Mexican humor is dark at its core, and the calaverita aficionado must be open-minded to a certain level of irreverence. Let’s now see an example below:

The Psychopomp’s editors were diving into the slush pile,
when they found the worst piece they had read in their whole lives.
“No way,” they shouted, as tearing the pages apart,
“Nobody with a brain would ever publish this crap!”

But they didn’t know it was La Parca who had sent them her best work,
and when she got a form rejection she took it wrong at heart.
She went then to find the editors and dragged them to the graveyard,
and there she eternally lessoned them on how to appreciate good art.

As with any form of satire, calaveritas literarias are born from observation and exaggeration. The joke consists of making Death find her victim doing something they usually do—or something they used to do, if the person has passed away in real life—and then making her harvest their soul in a somewhat ironic way. The tone will vary depending on the intention. Nowadays, most people write calaveritas as a tribute to their deceased loved ones, so the jokes are relatively respectful and about things that the honored person would have found funny—think of an elementary school teacher bursting like a balloon when sitting on a tack that a mischievous Death placed on their chair.

However, the first calaveritas were not a tribute, and certainly not respectful at all.

The first written records of calaveritas literarias date back to 1849, when José Indelicato published satirical verses mocking the privileged class in the newspaper El Socialista. It is also speculated that the tradition could have originated with the satirical book La Portentosa Vida de la Muerte (The Portentous Life of Death) written by Fray Joaquín de Bolaños and published in 1792. In any case, calaveritas literarias had become popular by the second half of the 19th century, as a way to criticize politicians and expose privileged people who had wronged the oppressed.

As expected, the first calaveritas were harshly censored and the government prohibited their publication in newspapers and magazines, categorizing them as indecent. But a few decades later, with the birth and rising popularity of La Catrina, they got a second wind and the tradition soon spread all across the country. By the second half of the 20th century, it was already a tradition to write these verses every year around the Día de Muertos season, and over time people began to create calaveritas about celebrities, family, friends, and even fictional characters.

And so, when my fourth-grade teacher asked us to write calaveritas for a Día de Muertos about twenty years ago, most of the class took the modern approach and wrote either loving tributes for deceased relatives or funny verses about cartoon characters, telenovela actors, and soccer players. But the original spirit of la calaverita, punk and satirical, is still alive—yes, pun intended.

As I grew up, I noticed how the calaveritas I would find stuck in walls and bulletin boards around Día de Muertos were more and more irreverent every year. There were still plenty of verses honoring late grandparents or jokes between friends, of course, but it was the protests always that attracted the most attention. From negligent or battering parents to corrupt politicians, and from school bullies to teachers who sexually harassed their students or asked them for money to let them pass the course. Death spares no one, and once a year, she gives the powerless a voice to say the quiet part out loud, to expose their oppressors and abusers and make people laugh at their expense. Because Death has a dark, twisted sense of humor. And so do I. That’s why I write.