•  As Dia de Los Muertos approaches, puestos, or market stalls, selling sugar skulls, begin to appear all over Mexico; and even here in San Francisco’s Mission District, at Galeria de La Raza. Rarely produced outside of Mexico because of the molds required to make them, Michele Simons has found a way to create sugar skulls, something she has been doing for more than a dozen years.

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Just Gimme the Details:

Learn how to decorate sugar skulls just in time for Dia de los Muertos at Galeria de La Raza’s 24th Street Tradition with workshops led by artist Michele Simons. Open to the community ($10.00 per person with all materials included), groups of 6 or more are encouraged to reserve a spot in advance, including teacher and educators, by contacting Michele@TheSugarSkullGallery.com.

Workshop Schedule: Fridays (Starting October 10th), 4:00pm to 9:00pm Saturdays (Starting October 11th), 12:pm to 5:00pm Sundays (Starting Oct. 5th), 12:00pm to 5:00pm. Galeria de la Raza, 2857 24th St., S.F.; (415) 826-8009. More info: http://www.galeriadelaraza.org

Michele’s Story

What began as a personal journey, when, after the passing of her mother, Simons traveled to the small Mexican town of Pátzcuaro, Michoacan, famed for its Dia de Los Muertos celebrations; turned from passion to entrepreneurship as San Franciscan’s eagerly embraced what to them was a new art form. “I never imagined I would be here, doing this,” says Michele. She seems to drift off to a different place and time as she describes the moment when her life changed course that night, 15 years ago, in Pátzcuaro. “I sat there all night in the Panteon with these Indigenous women who spoke no Spanish, much less English, but somehow, they understood me, they seemed to know what I was going through, and they looked after me.” It was on that trip that Simons purchased her very first sugar skull, embossed with her mother’s name: Constance, which she still has. 12 years would pass before Simons was able to turn this moment into studio art, partially due to personal circumstance, but also because of another woman who also had a passion for sugar skull art, Angela Villabla, a Mexican importer specializing in Mexican folk art related to Day of the Dead. “Sugar skulls are just important to Day of the Dead as the Christmas cookie is to Christmas,” explains Villabla. Sugar skulls are created around clay molds into which artisans pour the liquefied sugar; molds which are passed down in Mexico from generation to generation in the families who make the sugar skulls that are sold in the market stalls. After “trying for years and years and years, in every way possible”, to bring these molds back to the United States, even “in crates…wrap[ped] in toilet paper”, Angela finally started creating her first sugar skull molds in 1996, as a way to share her passion and make it possible for people here to make sugar skulls on their own. One of the people who found Angela’s molds was Michele Simon.

Michele started by making sugar skulls based on famous people who had passed. The first of these was of Celia Cruz, followed by Frida Kahlo and Pavarotti. The method for making, assembling and decorating the skulls is demonstrated in this documentary, “The Making of Sugar Skulls” by Lauren Benichou, her very first film, during which fifth-generation Mexican sugar skull artist Miguel Quintana describes how he began to learn the craft from his parents starting at the age of 6, first helping his parents by just adding the tiny eyes to the smallest sugar skulls because “I have really small fingers” (yo tengo lo dedos chicos). Miguel uses molds that are more than 100 years old. Angela, like Miguel and Michele, are motivated by a passion to share this beautiful Mexican art form and Angela is quick to add that, “there is now way we think these are as good and as fabulous as the authentic sugar skulls in Mexico”. This sentiment, of valuing the cultural roots of the craft, is what makes it possible to translate this art form without co-opting it.

The Cultural Roots of Skeletons and Sugar Skulls

Day of the Dead is arguably the Mexican national holiday most recognized and embraced in the U.S., and certainly in the SF Bay area. (Cinco de Mayo, which has long been celebrated in this country as a stand-in for Mexican Independence Day, which it decidedly is not, is not celebrated nationally in Mexico). It is also one of the most important celebratory intervals in Mexico, spanning several days beginning Oct. 30th and ending Nov. 2nd, with some regional differences as to the exact dates.

The celebrations have a storied history (see http://www.examiner.com/article/day-of-the-dead-history-and-a-recipe-for-age-old-mexican-pumpkin-treat) and fascinating customs (http://www.examiner.com/article/day-of-the-dead-history-customs-modern-mexican-and-pan-de-muertos-recipe) including Pan de Muertos or Bread of the Dead. Also closely associated with Day of the Dead are calaveras or skeletons, which appear as a Halloween motif as well; however an examination of their significance reveals traditions that are markedly different. Halloween skeletons are meant to frighten, whereas Mexico’s tradition of humorous, almost irreverent skeleton art, unique in all of Latin America, embodies an attitude unrelated to fear.

Although Día de los Muertos is the only modern Mexican festival for which there is conclusive evidence of pre-Hispanic roots (during the month of Xocotlhuetzi, which fell in July and/or August, the Aztecs marked the Great Feast of the Dead. It was the conquering Spaniards who “relocated” the festival to coincide with All Hallows Eve), the mistaken notion that Mexicans somehow do not fear death, and that this belief has its roots in some Aztec ideology wherein the brave Aztec warrior embraced rather than dreaded meeting his end, has no clear historical basis. Nor is there any proven correlation between pre-Columbian warrior lore and the merriment of Day of the Dead celebrations. The Aztec celebration coincided with the harvest of beans, chickpeas, rice, corn, and pumpkin. These foods were part of the offering that was placed at the altar of the goddess Mictecacihuatl, ruler of the afterlife along with her husband, Mictlantecuhtli. Researchers think that these traditions eventually became conflated with others, which included burying personal objects of the deceased, along with food and offerings. Rather than having any basis in fear associated with death, the mood and corresponding traditions of Día de los Muertos are a combination of joy at the pending return of dead relatives, if only for a day, with some interesting satirical art forms that explain the proliferation of delightful skeletons and colorful skulls. Contrary to popular belief, there is no connection between these and any particular Mexican morbidity.

Calaveras are lively skeletal figurines that take the form of marionettes, giant puppets, and sweets. The most ubiquitous of these are Mexico’s sugar skulls or Alfeñiques. The word “alfeñique” has its root in the Arabic word “alfainid”, which refers to the preparation of a sweets made from sugar cane juice, which is stretched into very thin layers. The migration of the word, most likely first to Spain with the Moors and then to Mexico, echoes the migration of many spices and even recipes, especially those used in baking and the making of sweets. Boiled sugar is poured into ceramic molds in the shape of a coffin, a dove, or lamb, but the most traditional is the shape of a skull. Honoring the dead, the name of a loved one is written across the forehead and the skulls are decorated with colorful sugar icing. The alfeñiques are then placed on the family’s altar. In fact, as scholar and altar maker Rafael Jesus Gonzales describes in the documentary, the sugar skulls are a “very brilliant symbol, in a way, in that [they] celebrate the sweetness of life and at the same time recognize its end”.

Their origin of skulls as a symbol associated with Day of the Dead is both interesting and controversial. While there is strong evidence of skulls displayed for ceremonial purposes in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, some anthropologists conclude that the appearance of skulls more likely stems from Colonial imagery, harkening to the skull as a symbol of death in Christianity. One school of thought is that the alfeñiques, the sugar skulls that adorn the altars on Day of the Dead, have their origins in the Tzompantli, a wooden rack used in several Mesoamerican civilizations for the public presentation of human skulls. Rather than a gory frightening or morbid custom, these displays coincided with the Aztec belief that death was the conclusion of one phase of this life, and that life extended past death to another level. Accordingly, it was common practice was to keep the skulls of the deceased and show them during those rituals that symbolized the end of a cycle (at the end of the calendar year, for example).

With the arrival of the Spaniards, the Catholic Church forbade the rituals using human skulls, but the Mexicas resisted the elimination of traditions so deeply held. Historians who trace the origins of sugar skulls to pre-Columbian times believe that the Aztecs were eventually persuaded to substitute sugar skulls for real ones. Other anthropologists argue that the icon of the skull and cross bones, as well as appearance of skeletons, was well documented in early European and Church history, and that the sugar skulls came across the seas with the Spanish.

Catrinas

During 1920’s, Catrinas, female skeletons fashionably attired with wide-brimmed hats, became popular as Mexico’s Renaissance created a vogue for all things Aztec. The first Catrina was created by graphic artist Jose Guadalupe Posadas during the end of his life, between 1910 and 1913. The word “catrín” meant an elegant and well-dressed gentleman, usually accompanied by a lady with the same characteristics. This style was a classic for the aristocracy at the end of the 1800s and beginning of 1900s. Satirizing the Mexican upper class of the Porfirio Díaz era (Mexican president from 1876-–1880 and 1884-–1911), with their preference for European rather than Indigenous culture and cuisine, Catrinas were just part of this movement led by artists like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, as Mexico’s artistic intellectual community sought to re-connect with their indigenous roots.

Catrinas are one of Mexico’s most widely sought collectibles.

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