Día de los Muertos: Exploring Images from the Day of the Dead

Celebrated at the beginning of November, Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, is a holiday of remembrance of loved ones who have died. Traditional celebrations of the Day of the Dead are often more joyful than sorrowful, and many leave traces that can be found in the Library’s online collections of primary sources.

Olvera Street in Los Angeles

In a series of photographs taken by Carol Highsmith in 2012 on Olvera Street, a historic byway in Los Angeles, a close observer can spot a number of miniature skeleton figures in shop windows. These aren’t the frightening skeletons of Halloween traditions, however. Instead, they’re going about the festive business of daily life: singing, dancing, baking, greeting friends, or simply strolling down the street in their finest clothes. During the Day of the Dead, connections between the living and the dead are seen as being especially strong, and skeleton figures like these depict the dead taking a moment to revisit earthly ways.

For some artists, skeletons like these have also been used to celebrate or satirize the living. José Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican illustrator active in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, specialized in satirical broadsides–single-sheet flyers intended for posting in public places–that often included a poem but always featured an arresting image. Posada’s broadsides used skeletons to poke fun at politicians, criminals, and popular fads, and these works became known as calaveras–skulls. One broadside mocks the popularity of Mexico City’s new electric streetcars by depicting one skeleton hypnotizing another while a streetcar full of their fellow skeletons rolls by. The accompanying poem mentions a number of local residents by name, with images of skulls and skeletons next to the tools of those residents’ professions. Though Posada died in obscurity, he was a powerful influence on later generations of artists, and calaveras in Posada’s style are used as satirical flyers today.

Both of these types of skeletal images provide opportunities for student exploration.

  • Ask students to look closely at Carol Highsmith’s photographs of Olvera Street. What skeletons do they see in store windows or elsewhere in the photographs? What are the skeletons doing? Encourage students to speculate about what these skeleton figures tell them about their creators’ attitudes towards the dead, and about what their creators think the dead would most want to do while visiting the world of the living.
  • Distribute one or more of José Guadalupe Posada’s calaveras to your students and ask them to make close observations of the images. What details do they notice, and what do those details suggest about the attitude of the artist towards his subject? Urge them to speculate about why Posada chose to use skeletons in these satirical drawings instead of realistic human figures.
  • Encourage your students to consider what they would do with their own skeletal creations. If they were to craft a skeleton figure like those in Carol Highsmith’s photos, what would it choose to do with its time on earth? If they were to create a drawing satirizing a public figure, how would they draw a skeleton that would not only be recognizable but also get their critical points across? If your students are feeling creative, you might also ask them to draw or sculpt a skeletal figure to share their ideas with their peers.

Let us know what insights these bare-bones images inspire in your students!

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