Tag Archives: poem

Day of the Dead: La Calaverita

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.

Loose translation:

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.


Paddy Juárez

“Why do the Mexicans have a public holiday for St Patrick’s Day?” I thought. Obviously, they don’t. Today’s bank holiday is actually to celebrate the birthday of Mexican hero Benito Juárez which is on the 21st of March, but the Mexicans, loving to party as they do (not sure if I’ve mentioned this before, but the Mexicans do love to party), move the ‘bridge’ to make it a long weekend. It’s no surprise that people generally behave more patriotically towards their home nation when they’re away from home, but I couldn’t tell you when St. George’s Day is, or anyone English who celebrates it abroad. St. Patrick’s Day, however, is celebrated all over the world: perhaps because of the incredibly high emigration rate, but perhaps just as much because people love paddies and paddies love to get pissed, so  St. Patrick’s Day has become an ode to good times and Guinness.

Despite being in many ways about as English as they come, I have long considered Ireland as my spiritual home. Like about 70% of the English population (or so it would seem) I am half Irish, and I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in County Cork in the last twenty five years – the entirety of my lifetime. There’s a majestic beauty in the sweeping landscape of Cork and Kerry, and it just feels like everything I love about Ireland is soaked deep into the mountains.

Local tradition states that St. Finbarr walked from the Top of the Rock in Drimoleague to Gougane Barra in the 6th century, and people have continued to follow this pilgrim path ever since. As well as the spiritual aspect of this ancient route, it boasts spectacular views over Bantry Bay and the West Cork coastline. It offers an immense sense of restfulness, and whatever your religion or nationality,  and wherever you are, I strongly believe that spending a little time every now and again in simple contemplation works wonders for the soul. Living far away from home in a completely different culture gives a great opportunity to reflect on life from a new perspective: on our customs, thoughts, values and actions, by looking from the outside in and all around. This is what anthropologists like to call ‘reflexivity’.

I would like to share my favourite poem that helps me to feel at peace with the present, something that I have found the Mexicans to place great emphasis on. It is short and powerful, and I never tire of reading it, often over and over again in one sitting.

St Finbarr’s Hermitage – Gougane Barra

The peace of God enfolds it

And he who tarries there

Shall find a heaven for his eyes,

And in his heart, a prayer.

But he who hurries onwards

May search the world in vain

And never find before he dies,

Such peace on earth again.

After reading it I close my eyes, visualise what peace feels and looks like, and simply breathe. I’m not religious, and for me it’s not the peace of God that I feel but the beauty of life and the natural world. Sometimes it comes more easily than others. Living in Mexico brings frequent waves of joy; it’s an incredible experience and I have so much to be grateful for. So for today I’ll be swapping salud for sláinte in a toast to St. Finbarr, and enjoying this moment of absolute contentment.