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How the amusing calaveras—skeletons performing various everyday or festive activities—came to be? They are the creation of Mexican artist José Guadalupe (Lupe) Posada (1852– 1913) as explained by Duncan Tonatiuh in his award winner children's book Funny Bones.

In a country that was not known for freedom of speech, Posada first drew political cartoons, much to the amusement of the local population but not the politicians. He continued to draw cartoons throughout much of his life, but he is best known today for his calavera drawings. They have become synonymous with Mexico’s Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival.

 

El Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a festive and often humorous holiday in which people remember their deceased loved ones. It is celebrated every November 1-2 throughout Mexico and in many parts of the United States and Central America.

 

The holiday has its origin in Pre-Colombian times. Many cultures in the Americas held festivities to celebrate the dead. The Aztecs, for instance, had a month-long celebration every year to honor Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacíhuatl, the god and goddess of death. For these ancient cultures, death was not seen as the end of living but, instead, as another step in the cycle of life. When the Spanish conquered the Aztecs and other peoples of the Americas, much of the natives’ way of life was lost. But some of their traditions and beliefs survived and mixed with the beliefs and customs of the European conquerors. Such is the case with el Día de Muertos, which is celebrated on the Catholic holiday of All Hallows, or All Saints’ Day.

 

Literary calaveras, or calavera poems, are another important expression of el Día de Muertos. Literary calaveras are short humorous poems that rhyme and that involve death in some kind of way. The poems often imagine how a person encounters death or how the person becomes a calavera. Calavera poems are written every year, especially about powerful and famous people, like presidents, politicians, artists, and athletes.

 

The poems became popular in the late 1800s. After Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1810, the country gained more freedom of the press and a lot of newspapers and publications began to appear. Calavera poems became and acceptable way to poke fun at elected and appointed officials.

 

José Guadalupe Posada was not the first to illustrate calavera poems, but he was certainly the most prolific and the best at it. The editor Antonio Vanegas had worked with an illustrator names Manuel Manilla for several years before he began working with Posada. Some calavera drawings that are often attributed to Posada are now known to have been drawn by Manilla. Very little is known of Manilla and of his life. Even less is known about artists who drew calaveras before Manilla and Posada.

 

Posada made calaveras drawings every Día de Muertos for twenty-four years. Although his drawings and calaveras were popular while he was alive, Posada died a poor man. Very few people knew he was the artist behind such great drawings. 

 

It was years after Posada’s death that Jean Charlot, a French-born American painter, discovered his images while in Mexico and began to collect his work. Charlot tried to learn more about Posada. In 1925 he wrote an essay about him; in 1930, he co-edited a catalog of his work. These publications revived interest in Posada’s work and made Posada’s name and work known to other artists and to the public at large.

 

Famous Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco were greatly influenced by Posada, and they celebrated his work. Nowadays, museums, galleries and universities in Mexico, the United States, and other parts of the world have collections of Posada’s work, including the actual printing plates from which his prints were made. Many books have been written about Posada, but facts about his life are still being discovered. 

 

In an essay, Diego Rivera wrote that Posada’s name may one day be forgotten but his work will always be a part of Mexico’s popular arts. In many ways, this is true today. Reproductions of Posada’s artwork are typically used during el Día de Muertos. They have become part of the celebrations imagery. His calaveras are much more famous than his name. They capture the festive sentiment of el Día de Muertos holiday.

 

The children's book Funny Bones is a tribute to the great Don Lupe Posada, and I hope it offers an opportunity to learn and celebrate el Día de Muertos, a wonderful holiday that is not only a celebration of death but also a celebration of life. --Duncan Tonatiuh

 

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