Make your own sweet skulls for a Day of the Dead altar

It is the most recognizable symbol of the Day of the Dead in Mexico.

Brightly painted, frequently adorned with jewelry and inevitably sporting their toothy smiles, calaveras or skulls, adorn altars and tombs across Mexico and increasingly in the United States on the Dia de los festival. Muertos.

If you’re planning to make your own home altar or vibrant ofrenda to remember loved ones for the Day of the Dead, you’ll need a sugar skull or two. They set the right tone for a celebration that honors the deceased for all the joy and love they have brought to life. They are not meant to be scary; on the contrary, they remove the fear of death.

These, of course, are not real skulls but works of art, made from a variety of materials, the most common being the simple sugar found on grocery store shelves.

In the 16th century, sugar was as precious as gold, says Diego Marcial Rios, an artist from East Bay of Mexican descent, who teaches workshops on the arts of sugar skulls and mask-making.

But sugar was plentiful in Mexico, which was exploited to grow the crop for the European market after Columbus’ expeditions.

“Sugar was becoming a big industry in central Mexico and had become a big industry in Brazil,” Rios said. “There was a lack of materials like silver and metals. But sugar was everywhere. People had access to it as a material and adapted it as an art form.

“In perhaps 20 years, there were 500 sugarcane plantations in Central America,” he adds. “The reason? Ka-ching, ka-ching ka-ching – bring in a lot of money.

Rios will be teaching two classes on the art of making sugar skulls on Saturday, October 23 at the Sonoma Community Center. He will explain how to make a sugar skull using a mixture of sugar and meringue powder and place it in pre-made plastic molds, which are commonly available. The skulls should then be dried for eight hours in the sun or baked for 20 minutes in an oven at 200 degrees.

But for convenience, it will have pre-made skulls that attendees can decorate and take home for their own altars.

italian influence

Italian brothers, sent to Mexico to convert the natives to Roman Catholicism after the conquest of the Aztecs by Hernando Cortes, introduced the idea of ​​using sugar for sculpture.

The brothers used the precious commodity in Europe to make small religious figures like angels. For indigenous people, however, skulls were a more powerful and familiar and natural symbol to embrace, Rios says. The skull was a key part of the iconography of the ancient people of Mexico.

“All of these cultures used the skull; the Aztecs in particular used it in many of their relief sculptures. In paintings and murals, they also had decorated skulls. They thought it was a source of power and spirituality. They thought the skull was the essence of an individual, ”says Rios.

The Aztecs also used skulls to send political messages of intimidation. They piled them up at the entrance to their towns to scare people.

“If you don’t give in to us, this is where you will end up (that was the message). And the Aztecs ruled by force, ”says Rios.

In their efforts to convert indigenous peoples, the Spaniards tried to get them to celebrate Catholic All Saints’ Day by claiming that their Day of the Dead rituals were very similar. Although they fell around the same time of year, they were actually quite different, Rios says.

Over time, Dia de los Muertos evolved into a fusion of the two practices, and the glittering and magnificent decorated skulls became part of the traditional altar offerings.

Imagination allowed

There are no set rules for decorating a sugar skull; let your imagination and creativity run wild, says Rios.

The skulls are painted with royal icing, made from icing sugar and egg whites, which hardens, unlike buttercream icing. You can add ornaments using icing or tacky glue. Rios loves feathers, sequins and rhinestones, items easy to find in dollar stores, crafts and fabrics.

“Let your mind wander. I’ve seen people add all kinds of things, from horses to names to pretty designs, ”says Rios, who is known for his surreal and expressionist style. He works in Newark in a range of media, from woodcuts and graphics to painting and mask making. Much of his work focuses on powerful themes of political activism and social justice.

You can decorate your sugar skull in memory of a particular loved one, either in a design that the person would like or with symbols representative of their life.

It is believed that during the Day of the Dead, celebrated on November 1 and 2, the souls of the deceased return to their homes for a visit. Altars, with candles, food and drink, and other items, will win them over.

Growing up in Fresno and later in the Bay Area, Rios was enchanted by the Day of the Dead, with all of its mysterious imagery and rituals.

“In the mind of a young person, it’s great,” he says. “All these colors, the food. To be a Mexican child is wonderful. You don’t know what’s real and what isn’t. You live in this fantastic world. It is as if you are in both worlds.

At the age of 3, Rios went with his father to see “El hombre de Fuego” (“The Man of Fire”), the large mural by José Clemente Orozco in Guadalajara. He knew then that he would be an artist.

He received his BA in History and Art from UC Berkeley and an MA in Arts Education and Fine Arts from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

But Rios, as an artist with a passion for social justice, strongly believes that you must also put your ideas into action. He is also a certified paralegal, has been a private investigator, and has worked most of his adult life in social services helping the poor and people of color. He currently works for a large social service agency in East Bay, helping people find housing, education and employment.

“It definitely helps me in my art because I understand the system,” says Rios, who grew up in protest. His father often gave refuge in the family home to the founder and leader of United Farmworker, Cesar Chavez, whom Rios remembers well.

He also has a strong sense of playfulness and fun, which he finds infused into the Day of the Dead celebration. Yet teaching its traditions and the history behind them is also empowering, he says.

“An individual who knows their history and culture is difficult, if not impossible, to oppress. “

You can contact editor Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or [email protected] On Twitter @megmcconahey.

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