Making Merry With Death: Iconic Humor In Mexico'S Day Of The Dead


Children eat sugar skulls with their names printed on the candied foreheads, public figures endure attacks with predictions of their impending demise, and papier-mâché skeletons appear, inviting the dead to live amongst us. These calaveras (literally "skulls," but also used in reference to whole skeletons) walk the dog, play musical instruments, and perform other day-to-day activities. Mexico's Day of the Dead festival, also celebrated in many parts of the United States (Beardsley 1987, 64), is a time to honor death while mocking it with great abandon. It would be difficult to point to another culture that celebrates with so much amusement and gaiety what many other people feel is the most difficult rite of passage. In Mexico, the more hilarious the confrontation of the dead with the living, perhaps the greater the pleasure and engagement with the celebration. Death is unavoidable, and the response of many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans is to accept it as a permanent companion. This relationship is friendly, comical, ironic, and full of mockery. Octavio Paz described it this way: To the inhabitant of New York, Paris, or London death is a word that is never used because it burns the lips. The Mexican, on the other hand, frequents it, mocks it, caresses it, sleeps with it, entertains it; it is one of his favourite playthings and his most enduring love.1 (1961,10) This essay will explore how humor is used in Day of the Dead rituals with special attention to the function of the iconic calavera or skeleton (see the article by Stanley Brandes in this volume for the literary calavera). I will analyze how humor is an inseparable part of the aesthetic process of the Day of the Dead celebration, allowing for a breakdown of opposing forces, opposites that are somehow overcome and conquered in the popular Mexican and Mexican-American worldview. The two pairs of opposing forces, which I will analyze, are life and death and the upper and lower economic classes. In Day of the Dead rituals, the boundaries between these entities, typically seen by most Europeans as opposites, are broken down through the aesthetic process of reversal. In a reversal, something that is thought to be ugly becomes pleasurable, or even beautiful. If the aesthetic is not inverted or reversed, it is at least blurred (Lippard 1990, 200-201). As this aesthetic reversal takes place in ritual space, the boundary between the artist and the participant is also deconstructed during the fiesta experience. Humor is the catalyst for this aesthetic process. Were it not for the success of the humor, the reversal would perhaps not be accepted, and the power of the ideas about death would be diminished. These ideas will first be explored and then further grounded in the widely celebrated calavera prints of José Guadalupe Posada and the Linares family's papier-mâché calaveras. © 2003 by Utah State University Press. All rights reserved.

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Of Corpse: Death and Humor in Folkore and Popular Culture

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Article; Book Chapter

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84901083609 (Scopus)

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