Day of the Dead reminds us to live | Opinion

Mexican printmaker José Guadalupe Posada’s influence is still seen 100 years later

November 2, 2021 5:55 am

This illustration by Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada shows people fleeing a fearsome calavera, or skull, wielding a leg bone at center. On the left, a skeleton photographer shoots a camera. On the right, a skeleton artist paints a picture, while a skeleton bartender mixes a drink. It describes many electoral candidates (caudillos) who aspired to the presidency. (Source: Library of Congress)

The nostalgic smell of pan dulce, or sweet bread, hit me when I walked into Diana’s Bakery on Cherokee Street in St. Louis.

It was impossible not to think of my grandmother taking me to a similar panadería (bakery) and letting me and my sisters pick out a pan dulce, while she bought her favorite rolls.

The shelves at Diana’s are always filled with cookies and breads, decorated in muted pastel colors. But around Día de los Muertos, they bring out the skull-shaped cookies, or calaveras, decorated with flower designs and bright neon colors. 

They’re the kind of cookies that scream “live,” though clearly depicting death.  

It’s the paradox of Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, celebrated on Nov. 1 and 2 throughout Latin America. While it’s a day to remember and honor those who have passed on, it’s also a day to remember to live life to the fullest because that’s what our loved ones would want us to do. 

Día de los Muertos celebrates the lives of the deceased with food, drink, parties and activities the dead enjoyed in life. Families often make ofrendas, or altars, in their homes with photos of their loved ones, candles, flowers, pan dulce and other favorite foods. 

The most iconic symbol of Day of the Dead is the intricately-designed skull. That image of the calavera born out of the work of José Guadalupe Posada, who was creating these illustrations during a tumultuous time.

Diana’s Bakery in St. Louis displays a cookie shaped as a calavera, or skull, one of the most iconic symbols of Dia de Los Muertos. (Photo by Rebecca Rivas/Missouri Independent.)

In 1910, the Mexican Revolution had just begun, and the working class was rising up against the feudal-like system. Posada was a humble printmaker who made humorous political illustrations using skeletons as a way to say that we are all going to die no matter what class we come from or what color our skin is. 

Posada was known to say that “death is democratic” because it’s the great equalizer. His prints were particularly popular around Día de los Muertos.

Ana Marcela Maldonado Morales, owner of Tintoretta Tattoo shop in Kansas City, said Posada has greatly influenced her work as an artist. 

“Posada’s work has that humorous aspect layered onto celebrating the dead, which I think is a really Mexican thing to do,” said Maldonado, who lived in Mexico when she was young and still visits her family there. 

For Maldonado, Día de los Muertos is about acknowledging that fate is unpredictable, and we just have to enjoy life while we’re here. That perspective on death is healthy, she said, because it doesn’t focus on denying or fearing death. It acknowledges and embraces the life cycle. 

“In the end, we all die,” she said. “We can remember each other and celebrate that. It’s not so doomsday.”

Day of the Dead originated several thousand years ago with the Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people. During Posada’s time, indigenous people were often treated as the inferior class, so some distanced themselves from the custom. Posada brought the traditional images of Día de los Muertos into popular culture. 

“It was a great confluence of giving voice to the working class and acknowledging custom,” said José Garza, a St. Louis artist, who grew up in Mexico. “Some of those customs were almost frowned upon because they were believed to be primitive.” 

Posada was able to unite people of all socio-economic statuses by making the custom more mainstream.

For both Garza and Maldonado, celebrating Día de los Muertos during the pandemic brings up a lot of emotions around the challenges of these past two years. 

“I want to connect to the spirits and my ancestors, but I feel really disconnected,” Maldonado said. 

It’s a sentiment I’ve been hearing more and more — where the days run together and emotions are high.

Posada’s work was born in a time of similar intensity and uncertainty. He was a storyteller who some say worked all day in his studio, dipping his pen in a special ink and making illustrations that made people roar with laughter — despite their struggles. 

Newsboys distributed his broadside sheets throughout all parts of Mexico City. Corridistas, or musicians, would travel to markets to perform and sell broadsides with song lyrics accompanied by Posada’s illustrations.

The songs were about racism, labor strikes and the revolution’s leaders, among other things. 

Posada, himself, died poor and relatively unknown in 1913. 

He probably never imagined that he would become one of the most influential and lauded artists in Mexico. That his work would be seen as a unifier for his country. Or that he would be influencing Latino artists like Garza and Maldonado more than 100 years after his death. 

On Día de los Muertos, I plan to eat a good amount of pan dulce, along with the bread that my grandmother loved. And when my children eat the calavera cookies, we’ll think of Posada and how he found ways to make people laugh and live more fully, even in the most challenging, uncertain times.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Rebecca Rivas
Rebecca Rivas

Rebecca Rivas is a multimedia reporter who covers Missouri's cannabis industry. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, she has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, including more than a decade as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation’s leading African-American newspaper.