Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Dia de los Muertos and Sugar Skulls what do they mean?

So I have this fascination with sugar skulls and masks. For some, they are creepy and scary but for me I see beautiful colors, shapes and designs.   I think there is something beautifully mysterious about them. 

It's October and that means it's the time of year when sugar skulls can be seen all over the internet, grocery stores and everywhere in between.  I decided to look into why we are so fascinated with sugar skulls and what is their meaning as well as the history behind Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). 

Doing some research I found some interesting articles about Dia de los Muertos. 
I already knew that this was traditionally a Mexican holiday and that sugar skulls are used decorate grave sites or altars but why? Does Dia de los Muertos have anything to do with Halloween? Why are sugar skulls designs rising in popularity? What does the Mexican and Latino community think of this commercialization?

Here is what I found.  These excerpts where taken from articles that I found on the internet.

Like this one...

 Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, celebrated in Mexico and parts of Central America, and the tradition of making colorful skulls out of sugar to honor deceased loved ones. In the celebration, sugar skulls typically represent a departed soul, whose name is often written in icing on the forehead, and are placed on home altars or gravestones to honor that person and the return of their spirit.

The sugar skull’s rising popularity in mainstream culture isn’t so sweet, though, for many in the Mexican and Latino community who celebrate the holiday and feel that the symbol is being stripped of its spiritual and cultural heritage as it is commercialized for other uses, often unrelated to the celebration.

Not all who celebrate Día de los Muertos see the sugar skull’s rising popularity as a problem. Cesáreo Moreno, chief curator and visual arts director for the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, likes seeing reminders – in any form – of his heritage in pop culture.
“I love that they are being used more and becoming more popular, but every time it spreads it does lose some of its original meaning,” Moreno said. “This happens with a lot of different popular icons. A few years ago, many people were upset that images of the Virgin of Guadalupe were appearing everywhere. It’s the same thing with sugar skulls. As the Mexican community in the U.S. continues to grow, a lot more of our culture will permeate U.S. culture and it will be transformed by it and become something different.”
Because of the image’s evocative mix of levity, dark humor, and death the sugar skull is likely to remain popular.
or this taken from
Day of the Dead is an interesting holiday celebrated in central and southern Mexico during the chilly days of November 1 & 2. Even though this coincides with the Catholic holiday called All Soul's & All Saint’s Day, the indigenous people have combined this with their own ancient beliefs of honoring their deceased loved ones.

They believe that the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on October 31, and the spirits of all deceased children (angelitos) are allowed to reunite with their families for 24 hours. On November 2, the spirits of the adults come down to enjoy the festivities that are prepared for them.
and this from sugar skull history...
How are Sugar Skulls used during Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) today?
Sugar Skulls are often used to decorate the ofrendas on Dia de los Muertos which is November 1st and 2nd. Smaller skulls are placed on the ofrenda on November 1st to represent the children who have deceased. On November 2nd they are replaced by larger, more ornate skulls which represent the adults. These decorative skulls have the name of the deceased on the forehead and are decorated with stripes, dots and swirls of icing to enhance the features of the skulls. These designs are usually whimsical and brightly colored, not morbid or scary. Feathers, beads or colored foils are "glued" on with the icing to create highly ornate skulls. Some companies manufacturer small, edible skulls to be eaten during the holiday and many artists sculpt, paint or create beautiful and ornate skulls to be used as decorations, jewelry and cloth design.

What I found out is that  Dia de los Muertos is meant to welcome spirits of our ancestors.  It’s a day for you to reconnect with your ancestors, not something you mourn and instead, celebrate.  It's not Halloween in Mexico, or something meant to be scary or creepy.  
Like anything that goes mainstream or becomes popular with the masses, it's design and use might change but it's roots will forever stay the same.  They say that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery and I think as long as you understand and respect it's meaning, using it in your art isn't necessarily a bad thing.  
As for me I am glad I took the time to do a little research on sugar skulls and Dia de los Muertos. While originally I was fascinated by the colors and designs, I am happy to have a greater understanding of their meaning and appreciate what they stand for.  To me it is an interesting part of the hispanic culture and that culture also happens to be part of my heritage which I know very little about.  You see, my Grandmother (my Dad's Mom) was a Hispanic American and I was never able to meet her or learn of her culture since she died before I was born.  
The next time I use the sugar skull design I will not only appreciate the colors and design I will appreciate the meaning behind it and think of my Father and Grandmother who are no longer with me here on earth.
Oh, and check out this California artist that I found while doing my research.  What amazing work!  Artist Rob O
Here is my Dia de los Muertos Doll...
Dia de los Muertos Doll

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I hope you enjoy reading about my journey in the world of art and crafts.

Happy Creating!
Lesa B.