Calavera translates as skull – they’re absolutely everywhere at this time of year and are undoubtedly the biggest symbol of Day of the Dead in Mexico. The skull obviously represents the dead, only the skulls and skeletons that adorn everything here are not grim, vacant figures at all, but jolly personalities always smiling or laughing and very often in character, for example in traditional Mexican dress, or as a nurse or mariachi musician. Mexico’s sugar and chocolate skulls are an internationally recognised symbol of Day of the Dead, and they are always brightly coloured and decorated, again demonstrating the fun of the celebration. There’s nothing haunting or spooky about the tradition, it’s about welcoming back loved ones who have died, who are only able to visit at this time each year.
In the UK we are much more uncomfortable with death, and rarely laugh at it. For that reason Day of the Dead can be misinterpreted as a little creepy and weird. However, once it is understood within the context of the Mexican culture and character it becomes apparent that it’s just an alternative way of dealing with the same emotions (of the universal experience of death), in a style that is more fitting with the Mexican approach to things in general. Mexican humour is very dark and clever, full of double entendre, and they do tend to laugh at everything no matter how disastrous, so it completely makes sense that the Mexicans take one of the most difficult and painful human experiences and spin it into something entertaining and fun.
As calavera means skull, calaverita just means little skull. Following in the traditional of double meaning in Mexican language (which can be very confusing for outsiders!), calaverita also refers to a special kind of poem which is written and shared around Day of the Dead. They are humorous rhymes which detail a prophecy of how a person is going to die. A few of my sprogs at work wrote me this Calaverita, it had me in stitches and I had to share it!
Calaverita Maestra Ellie
Estaba la maestra Ellie
comiendo un cachito de melón
cuando llego la muerte
acompañada de un viejo pelón.
-¿Que haces maestra Ellie?
-La muerte le preguntó
-Aquí, matando el hambre
-Ellie le contestó.
– ¡Matando! – La muerte se sorprendió
– Mmm, me quiere hacer competencia…
– Es lo que doña muerte pensó
– Pero no me ganará la impaciencia
– Solita se consoló.
-¡Ayudame! Le llegó su hora
– La muerte le dijo al pelón
– Ahora vamos a matarla
golpeandola con un balón.
Y así la pobrecita Ellie
nunca jamás volvió a Europa
porque la malvada muerte
se la llevó con todo y ropa.
En Juconi los niños lloraron
Pero se les olvido en un dos por tres
Porque al fin y al cabo…
Ninguno entendia su Inglés.
There was Teacher Ellie eating a chunk of melon, when Death arrived accompanied by a bald old man.
“What are you doing?” Death asked her.
“I’m killing my hunger,” Ellie answered.
“Killing?!” she exclaimed, “she wants to compete with me,” thought Lady Death. “But hastiness won’t get the better of me,” she consoled herself.
“Help me! Her time has come!” Death said to the baldy. “Now we’re going to kill her, by thumping her with a ball.”
And just like that poor Ellie died, and never returned to Europe, because evil death took her with clothes and all.
In Juconi the children cried, but they forgot her in a jiffy, because in the end, after everything, nobody understood her English.