Culture

Día De Los Muertos Is Here And Sugar Skulls Are Everywhere. Here Is Their Spanish History In Mesoamerica

Day of the Dead without sugar skulls is like Halloween without candy, or Saint Patrick’s Day without 4 leaf clovers, they go hand in hand and no celebration of the dead would be complete without them. Day of the Dead is a celebration with many symbols and traditions, and ‘Calaveritas de azúcar’ are some of the most famous symbols of the celebration. However, do you really know what they mean? What they represent? And how they originated? Let’s find out.

Día de los Muertos is celebrated throughout Latin America, and traditions vary from region to region, but one symbol remains constant —the calaveritas. 

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Día de los Muertos is a joyful, colorful celebration in honor of death and those loved ones who have passed. There isn’t a single definition of Day of The Dead given that in every region of Mexico and other countries of Latin America, it’s celebrated differently. Certain symbols remain present in many of the cultures that celebrate it, and one of those is the now world-famous ‘calaverita’.

Skulls and skeletons are probably the most identifiable things about Día de los Muertos. These two symbols are indeed a big part of the holiday, and ‘calaveritas de azucar’ have become the everyday trinket you find in street stalls and ofrendas across Mexico during the whole month of October, leading up to Nov. 1 and 2 when the actual celebration takes place.

Sugar skulls have become a staple of Día de los Muertos, whether covered in glitter or decorated with colorful icing, they’re everywhere this time of year.

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Sugar skulls are always present in Day of The Dead ofrendas, often made of white or pink sugar, and decorated with colorful designs, they usually have a person’s name written on a ribbon across their forehead. They are meant to symbolize a departed loved one, hence the name —as well as other many souls who have left this world and will be wandering around in the land of the living on the first two days of November.  Sugar skulls can be given as gifts to both the living and the dead.

For ancient Aztecs and other Mesoamerican cultures, skulls had a very important meaning.

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Skulls were an important symbol in Mesoamerican culture, way back in pre-hispanic time. Mesoamerican civilizations depicted bones and skulls in many ways, one of the most important ones was the ‘Tzompantli’, a wooden rack in which the skulls of war prisoners or human sacrifices were displayed. 

These civilizations believed in life after death, and so these skulls were an offering to the god of the underworld, Mictlantecuhtli, who would assure safe passage into the land he ruled. The Tzompantli could also be an altar illustrating this journey from the terrestrial life into the spiritual one, and it’s not uncommon to find sugar skulls that are decorated and colored with Mictlantecuhtli’s face.

The ancient tradition changed after the arrival of the Spanish and the fall of Mesoamerican cultures.

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With the arrival of Spanish conquistadores and the enforcement of the Catholic religion upon indigenous peoples, these traditions were deemed ‘heresy’ and were suppressed, or lost —and yet, part of them was kept alive in the shape of the skull, turned into a sweet confection that can be placed on altars as part of our offerings to the deceased during the Catholic celebration of All Saints Day.

Day of the Dead became a ‘mestizo’ celebration devoted to worshipping God and the afterlife —mixing the Spanish Catholic faith, with what was left of Mesoamerican culture and religion. 

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Día de los Muertos became a typically Latin American custom that combines indigenous Aztec ritual with Catholicism, brought to the region by Spanish conquistadores. Prior to Spanish colonization in the 16th century, the celebration took place at the beginning of summer. Día de los Muertos is celebrated on All Saints Day and All Souls Day, minor holidays in the Catholic calendar as enforced by the Spanish.

Sugar skulls originated after the Spanish introduced confectionary into Mexico.

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While the tradition of honoring the dead already existed in Mexico, the Spaniards brought about new learnings and customs and, with that, the idea of molding decorations from sugar was widely popular and easily available. Mexico was rich in sugar at the time, and it was very accessible, even to indigenous or mestizo people with little money, so it was a natural choice. Once they learned that they could make these skull molds with just sugar and water, the idea of the sugar skull re-gained popularity and grew to be an important symbol of the day.

‘Calaveritas de azúcar’ are made of sugar, water and lemon —and other ingredients to add flavor or color.

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The paste used to make them is called alfeñique, and it’s a mixture of sugar, hot water, and lemon, along with other ingredients that create a moldable mass akin to caramel. This paste allows for artisans to mold it into the shape of a skull to later decorate it for display.

There are many iterations of the classic sugar skulls, some are made of chocolate or ‘amaranto’ -another Mesoamerican treasure.

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While the sweet skulls are found all over Mexico, some states prefer to make these confections with other ingredients, such as almonds, honey (and covered with peanuts) or amaranth —a staple in Mesoamerica for thousands of years. The reason they come in different sizes, besides decoration purposes, is because small skulls are usually meant to represent children, while the bigger skulls represent adults and elders.

Today, many different versions of the sugar skull exist. There are not only different sizes but also coffins and the skulls made out of chocolate, amaranth and almonds are delicious! But the meaning behind the calaverita remains the same, a commemoration of the person you are honoring whether dead or alive.

READ: These Día De Los Muertos Inspired Tattoos Will Make You Want To Get Inked Right Away

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There’s A Mobile Día De Muertos Ofrenda Traveling Around Southern California To Commemorate Victims Of Covid-19

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There’s A Mobile Día De Muertos Ofrenda Traveling Around Southern California To Commemorate Victims Of Covid-19

Jan Sochor / Getty Images

Every year around this time, many Latino families setup their ofrendas and set out pictures and objects belonging to their lost loved ones – in celebration of Día de Muertos.

However, this year’s celebrations are looking very different thanks to the global Coronavirus pandemic.

Not only have many families recently lost loved ones to the virus, they’re also struggling with ways to pay for the often extravagant celebrations as so many are left without work and income. Others are too afraid to gather with their families for fear that they may spread the virus to others. Meanwhile, in some cities, cemeteries (where many of the celebrations take place) have been closed to the public to avoid further contagion risk.

So, to help bridge that divide some communities are finding new and creative ways to help celebrate their lost loved ones amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

A mobile ofrenda will visit some of LA’s neighborhoods most affected by the pandemic.

Día de Muertos takes on a special meaning this year as a deadly pandemic continues to disproportionately affect Latino communities. And although traditional celebrations and events have been canceled, Latino Health Access (a nonprofit that advocates for the health of the local Latino community) plans to bring the celebration to the homes of those most impacted by the virus in Orange County to honor the deceased.

“Many of the events have been canceled, but we still want to honor those people who have passed away this year because of COVID,” Karen Sarabia, program associate for the Latino Health Access COVID-19 response team, told the LA Times.

The group along with a few local artists are converting a 28-foot flatbed truck into the altar, much like a float in the Rose Parade. Residents will be able to take photos with the altar. They can also provide offerings or write down the names of their loved ones and place them on the altar to honor the deceased. 

Ofrendas like this one are a central part of Día de Muertos celebrations.

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Giovanni Vazquez, a local artist from Anaheim helping to construct the altar, spoke to the LA Times about the significance of the Day of the Dead. 

“I think it’s important because … this is how we remember all the dead and how we also celebrate the living,” Vazquez said, “This is how we remember that we’re going to go too. No matter which pandemic, no matter what cause, we are also going to die too.”

He continued: “We would like to share the art and try to make people think that death is also colorful and something we can celebrate … Just being thankful that we met the people in our life, even though they have passed, we remember them.”

According to the group, the ofrenda will have the basic components of classical altars in Mexico, where the tradition of Día de Muertos originated. There will be candles, thousands of paper flowers, sugar skulls and many offerings. 

There will be a prominent large skull and several smaller skulls with butterfly wings. Vazquez said those represent “the sacred migration of the living.” Monarch butterflies, which migrate to Mexico in November, are important symbols of Day of the Dead. 

The ofrenda and campaign is more important than ever as Latinos and other minority communities continue to suffer the worst effects of the pandemic.

Latino Health Access is organizing the event as part of the Latino Health Equity Initiative. Orange County launched the program in June in partnership with Latino Health Access after data revealed that the Latino community, particularly in Anaheim and Santa Ana, has taken the brunt of the pandemic in Orange County. 

The Los Angeles Times reported in late September that while Latinos make up 39% of the state’s population, they account for 61% of the state’s cases and 49% of COVID-19 deaths.

Anaheim is 56% Latino and Santa Ana is 77%. The cities account for about 36% of the county’s COVID-19 cases. 

Through the initiative, Latino Health Access is offering testing, outreach, education and referral services. 

California is not alone as cities from El Paso to Chicago create their own Día de Muertos celebrations to commemorate Covid-19 victims.

Credit: Alfonso Castillo Orta / Mexican National Art Museum

At the Mexican National Art Museum in Chicago, the museum has launched it’s exhibit memorializing Latinos who have died of the virus. “Sólo un Poco Aquí: Day of the Dead” honors people who have died from COVID-19 in Chicago and globally, said Antonio Parazan, director of education at the museum.

The exhibit is “paying tribute and remembering … the numerous individuals from our community … during this terrible pandemic,” he said. 

“We’ve had some of the highest number of infections … and a high number of deaths, as well,” Parazan said, noting Latino neighborhoods in Chicago have been among the hardest hit by coronavirus.

Even in Mexico – which has been one of the world’s hardest hit countries – officials are thinking of ways to merge traditional Día de Muertos celebrations with remembrances of Covid-19 victims.

In the town of Xalapa, families are taking photos with a giant Catrina, which is one fo the most iconic symbols of the holiday. And in Mexico City, the cities annual parade is going digital and will feature a special commemoration for Covid-19 victims.

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Mexico’s Famed Día De Muertos Events Are Going Virtual, Meaning It’s Easier Than Ever To Join The Celebrations

Culture

Mexico’s Famed Día De Muertos Events Are Going Virtual, Meaning It’s Easier Than Ever To Join The Celebrations

Jan Sochor / Getty Images

In Mexico, traditions are sacred and family is everything. So when the Coronavirus pandemic hit Mexico and threatened to take away many of the country’s prized traditions, people sprung into action to think outside the box so that communities could continue celebrating the year’s many traditions but in a low-risk way.

It’s this commitment to tradition and ingenuity that is helping Día de Muertos traditions live on this year, despite the surge in Covid-19 cases across the country.

Día de Muertos is usually celebrated across Central and Southern Mexico with large celebrations that include people from the entire pueblo. Well, obviously this year that isn’t exactly possible (or at least safe) so authorities are creating new ways to bring the important celebrations to Mexicans (and others) around the world.

Thanks to Covid-19, our Día de Muertos celebrations will look a lot different this year.

Typically at this time of year, Mexico bustles with activity and cities and pueblos across the country come to life full of color and scents. The cempasúchil – the typical orange marigolds associated with Día de Muertos – are everywhere and the scent is intoxicating.

However, things look exceptionally different this year. Mexican authorities have said cemeteries will remain closed for the Nov. 2 celebration, meaning that people aren’t buying up the flowers as in years past. In fact, according to many growers, less than half the typical amount have been grown this year.

Along with the cutback in flowers and typical holiday purchases, nearly all of the country’s major events have been cancelled by authorities. However, officials say that families can still celebrate but in more private ways or by tuning into online, virtual events.

Mexican authorities are urging people to practice sana distancia and avoid large family gatherings – including for Day of the Dead.

For many Mexicans, however, this year is especially important to celebrate the holiday in honor of the loved ones they’ve lost to the pandemic. Mexico has been one of the world’s hardest hit countries as there have been more than 855,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 86,338 deaths. Although those numbers are said to be highly skewed thanks to one of the world’s lowest testing rates.

“This year is very special because my family members died of COVID-19,” said Dulce Maria Torres in an interview with NBC News, who was buying flowers at a traditional market in the Mexican capital. “It’s important to me and we want to make them a beautiful offering.”

However, authorities are pleading with people to help contain the virus’ spread by avoiding the traditional family gatherings associated with the holiday.

As Mexico works to curb the spread of Covid-19, most events are going virtual this year.

Authorities across Mexico are working to maintain a balance between tradition and safety as they work to bring Día de Muertos celebrations to an online audience.

In an interview, Paola Félix Díaz, Director of the Tourism Promotion Fund, said that “Events such as the Day of the Dead are an opportunity to generate a tribute to all the people who have left because of this disease but also as a reminder of all the traditions that cannot be stopped.”

Officials are working an app called “Xóchitl, Mexico’s virtual ambassador for the world” that will work as an interactive digital platform featuring AR (Augmented Reality), which will include content related to Mexican traditions, culture, and entertainment.

The platform will give access to virtual events, live streaming for the promotion of beautiful Mexico City in a safe way without putting anyone at risk. The parade will be held inside a stadium or a recording studio, without public and following all COVID-19 protocols. The event will be broadcast in many different online platforms”

Even Mexico City’s famed Día de Muertos parade is going virtual this year.

Mexico City’s Day of the Dead parade is one of the country’s biggest tourism draws. Just last year the city had more than 2 million people at the parade. In addition, it’s a widely sponsored event by large companies such as Apple and Mattel. It brings in millions of dollars of revenue to the city.

Félix Díaz said that the possibilities of a virtual parade or “looking for these new trends such as drive-ins or a car tour are in talks. We are planning it.”

Cancun’s Xcaret park will be hosting an online festival to celebrate the holiday.

Although the sustainable park based outside Cancun has suspended all of its events and activities for 2020, in accordance with WHO recommendations, the park will host a virtual celebration for Día de Muertos.

Although the official date hasn’t yet been confirmed, the group says that they are excited to bring the event (now in its 14th year) to people around the world via an online celebration.

Events in the U.S. will also be taking place online – from California to New York.

One of the country’s largest Día de Muertos events, held in LA’s Grand Park will take place with 12 days of virtual celebrations. You’ll find arts workshops, digital ofrendas and storytelling online, as well as in-real-life art installations at the neighboring Downtown locations. Self-Help Graphics & Art—which hosts its own Day of the Dead event—has curated 11 large-scale altars for socially distant viewing, with audio tours available online.

Downey moves its annual Day of the Dead celebration from the city’s civic center to the internet with this virtual celebration. In the lead-up to the event you’ll be able to find recipes and crafting tutorials, and on the day of you can expect a mix of movies, music, ballet folklorico performances, shopping opportunities and a pair of art exhibitions.

And for those of us who can’t wait and/or want 24/7/365 access to Día de Muertos events, there’s always Google. The platform brings tons of Day of the Dead exhibits and information to users around the world through its Google Arts & Culture site, which you can view here.

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