What Is a Calavera?

Day of Dead Celebrations, Candy Sugar Skulls, Oaxaca, Mexico
Danita Delimont / Getty Images

The word calavera (or calaverita in the diminutive) means "skull" in Spanish, but the term is also used to refer to a kind of poem that is written and published especially around the season of Day of the Dead. The word calavera is generally used playfully in its different contexts, it does not have a gloomy or macabre connotation. Calaveras remind us of the transitory nature of life, that our time here on Earth is limited, and that it's acceptable (and maybe even desirable) to play and poke fun at ideas about death. While they're commonly referring to poems, there are several kinds of calaveras you'll encounter during a Day of the Dead celebration.

  • Pronunciation: ka-la-veh-ra
  • Also Known As: calaverita
  • Alternate Spellings: calabera, calaberita
  • Common Misspellings: calabera calaberita

Calaveras de Azucar

A calavera de azucar is a skull made out of sugar that is used to decorate Day of the Dead altars. They are often decorated with colorful icing, foil, and sequins. The name of a living person is often written across the top and then the sugar skull is given as a gift to that person. Making sugar skulls is a popular Day of the Dead activity, and sugar skull costumes are becoming more prevalent during Halloween celebrations north of the border (approach this with caution, as some find this to be an act of cultural appropriation).

La Calavera Catrina

The most famous calavera is La Calavera Catrina, a character invented by Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913). Posada was an engraver from Aguascalientes who made a political statement with his depictions of the Mexican upper class as well-dressed skeletons. La Calavera Catrina was originally depicted by Posada as a skeleton wearing a large hat with flowers, she is now often depicted wearing a boa and a fancy dress as an upper-class woman of that period would have worn.

The character is thought to be based on Carmen Romero Rubio, the wife of president Porfirio Diaz. Showing the wife of the president as a skeleton was a way to show that underneath all of the trappings of the upper-class lifestyle, we are all the same underneath, and we will all meet the same end eventually. The Calavera Catrina, often just called "Catrina" or "La Catrina" is a very popular subject in Mexican folk art and you will find a multitude of depictions of her in a wide variety of media. 

Literary Calaveras

The term calavera can also refer to a type of poem. They are rhyming mock obituaries that poke fun at living politicians or other prominent citizens or can be written about one's friends and loved ones. This playful literary tradition developed in the 19th century, and most likely got its name because they were published in newspapers and broadsides along with depictions of skulls and skeletons such as La Calavera Catrina. 

There was even calavera dedicated to Donald Trump (in Spanish and in English), written a month before he won the 2016 presidential election.