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Dia de los Muertos

Dia de los Muertos: homemade sugar skulls & an ofrenda for Marcia

One of the marigold-heavy ofrendas on display in Mexico City

Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) was always one of my favorite holidays during my time living in Mexico. The elaborate, colorful ofrendas (altars)… the well-dressed Catrina statues the tasty pan de muertothe fascinating traditions at the cemetaries… It was so interesting to spend two years in a culture that not only felt comfortable talking about death, but actually celebrated it.  I shared several photos from one year’s festivities around Mexico City in this post, and I’ve definitely missed all the rituals the last two years back here in the US.

My mom humoring me by eating at a taco street vendor in our hometown back in Sept 2009. :)

But this year’s Dia de los Muertos holds even more meaning for me than any I experienced in Mexico.  It falls on November 2nd, just two days before the anniversary of my mom’s death last year.  She passed away on a chilly fall day in Grand Island, Nebraska after a year and a half of battling lung cancer. We often joked together that she would have lived a more devil-may-care lifestyle if she’d known that was coming; a stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis after never even having smoked a cigarette seemed a bit crap.

I’ve been thinking for a while about what to do in her honor as the calendar creeps up on one whole year that she’s been gone. One of my friends does an extravagant, multi-course dinner every year in the theme of her home state to honor the memory of the restaurant owner who taught her the key tenets of Midwestern cooking– dairy, meat, and booze. I love that idea, but I wasn’t sure I’d make it through a reprise of the last meal Mom & I cooked together without getting a little weepsy this year.

Visiting the Dia de los Muertos displays in Coyoacan with my mom in October 2009.

Luckily, the traditions surrounding Dia de los Muertos offered the perfect solution, along with perfect timing. In fact, Marcia’s last trip abroad was to visit us in DF during October 2009, so she got to see all of the ceremony firsthand & loved it! I decided to assemble my own ofrenda to celebrate her, led by my friend Lesley’s great how-to guide.  I was buoyed by discovering that friend Ross had a whole garden full of marigolds to share, the flower always seen adorning altars in Mexico.  And we already had the iconic Catrina and Catrin statues, purchased with my Mom’s guidance at the Coyoacan DDLM market.

Tracking down calaveras de azucar proved to be a challenge in the DC area, but I came across an extensive website — www.mexicansugarskull.com — where I was able to buy all the accoutrements to make my own sugar skulls at home. I was slightly afraid this would turn into an arts-and-crafts disaster, but Angela’s site did a pretty good sales job, claiming “even second graders” can do it. :)  And finally, I was able to special-order orange blossom water (a common pan de muerto ingredient) from the Italian Store in my neighborhood for a mere $2.99.

Making the Sugar Skulls

Early last week I started work on the long pole in the tent: the sugar skulls. I started with a five-pounds-of-sugar test run, carefully heeding the dire warnings on the website (Don’t make them on a rainy day! Sugar hates humidity! Don’t use crappy meringue powder!). I opted for the “Oaxacan Medium Skull” mold from the various options available, which I liked because it was very 3-D (you make the front & back and then adhere them together with frosting) but wasn’t so big that you have to scoop out the insides to get it to dry properly. The process was surprisingly quick– just mash sugar into the plastic mold, scrape off the back with a flat edge, and flip it onto a piece of cardboard.

Halfway through my five pounds of sugar skull-making run! The mixture of sugar, meringue powder & water should feel like beach sand.

They’re supposed to dry for 12 hours. Because I’m anal, I gave the 14 skulls a few days to relax on a card table set up in our living room.  But during that time, I accidentally knocked one skull-half onto the ground, and amazingly it did not break! After that litmus test, I felt confident enough to email a few friends to see if they might be interested in joining me to decorate the skulls. I still hedged my bets, though, promising a big batch of chili to eat in case this project was an unmitigated disaster. :)

On Friday night, I made another five pounds worth of skulls, even though it had rained during the day and weather.com claimed 97% humidity at 9AM. I flipped our A/C on in the morning, and the skulls turned out fine. I whipped up a couple batches of royal icing around noon on Sunday, and began assembling the skull halves together– this was probably the most tedious part of the process. Their royal icing recipe dries crazy-fast, so at least there were no worries with things slipping around.

Rows of assembled sugar skulls, awaiting their time in the makeup chair...

Bright and festive icing, all ready to decorate some skulls!

That evening, a few folks came over and we dined on a new chili recipe John had tested out (verdict: tasty but futzy, as I guess one should expect when one is making one’s own chili powder & tripling a recipe). Then, we plopped the piles of neon royal icing I’d made into the icing bags, complete with zip ties.

Jenny and I awkwardly fill up the fancy icing bags. Normally I am a big proponent of ziplocs or baggies for dispensing frosting, but I have to say, these things were worth the $4 I spent.

We gathered everyone around the table with their blank skulls, and set to work!

Silence fell over the room as everyone focused intently on their designs...

We found that Leah's pecan pie helped provide the energy needed for this project... Also note the piles of colorful foil & sequins/confetti at the ready, and toothpicks came in handy as well.

For a group consisting largely of engineers, diplomats, architects, and lawyers, I was quite impressed with the level of creativity displayed in the end results:

A lovely array of calaveras courtesy our artistic friends! Marcia's is in the middle of the front row-- often Mexicans inscribe the name of the deceased on the skull's forehead.

We sent most of the skulls home with their creators, but a few stayed behind to grace our ofrenda. Mexicans believe that the souls of the dead come back & visit their loved ones during Dia de los Muertos, so the ofrenda is the offering to the deceased. The skulls joined a few photos of Marcia, candles (to help light the way for the spirits), a good bottle of red wine (things the person liked to eat/drink), a glass of water and a pile of salt (to quench the thirst of souls after their long trip back), pan de muerto (for nourishment), marigolds (which represent the passing nature of life), her Golden Bear necklace (favorite items the person liked to wear), and a Swedish dala horse in honor of her Swedish heritage. Lots of these items also symbolize the four elements of nature- wind, water, earth and fire, like the breezy papel picados that represent the wind.

UPDATE— I came across one DDLM-related saying today after I posted this that I’d not heard before but really liked. “Ya que el camino de regreso al mundo de los vivos no debe ser resbaladizo por las lágrimas.”  Translated, “The path back to the world of the living must not be made slippery by tears.” Great summary of the Mexican attitude towards celebrating the lives of those who have gone before us, rather than focusing on our sadness.

Our first ofrenda! My mom also helped me pick out the papel picados on the wall during our trip to Mercardo Jamaica in DF a few years back. I am amazed they are still (mostly) in one piece!

And a candlelit ofrenda view, including the pan de muerto I'd made the night before.

I had made vastly more sugar skulls then we ended up decorating (apparently not everyone has my perfectionist tendencies of needing multiple tries to hone my skull-decorating skills), so I whipped out a couple more after everyone left. One for my Grandma Arline, and one for John’s Uncle Brian.

The other family sugar skulls I made.

I debated for a while as to whether dogs deserved their own sugar skulls, but ultimately decided I had to draw the line somewhere. If our old beagle Roscoe and terrier Dave each got one, then what about Sophie the guinea pig? Or those fish we had for a while? The barn cats out at Grandma Dorothy’s farm?  There are limits, people.

As we cleaned up after the festivities on Sunday night, I gave John a big hug. “Thanks for being so supportive and not making me feel like a crazy person for wanting to do all of this,” I told him. “It’s just the kind of thing Marcia would have liked,” he replied, “Frenzied house-cleaning before having company over, friends, laughter, good food, red wine, and a project!” :)

It’s going to be a tough November 4th this year for me, my dad, and my brother, as well as for lots of her close friends & family. I just hope she knows how much we all miss her.

The Carmanns, all dressed up with somewhere to go. :)

Love you, Mom

Dia de los Muertos celebrations around DF

Some of the seasonal candied fruit/veg here in Mexico... I was not bold enough to eat a whole pumpkin

Some of the seasonal candied fruit/veg here in Mexico... I was not bold enough to eat a whole pumpkin

As many of my fellow bloggers have discussed, this is one of the best times of year to be in Mexico City– during the Dia de los Muertos celebrations. Preparation for this fascinating holiday begins during the last week or two of October, with activities reaching their peak on November 1 & 2. Wikipedia offers a decent general overview of the history, but in a nutshell, it is a time to remember & honor deceased friends and family. Visually this takes the form of ofrendas (offerings, or altars) in people’s homes & on display in many public venues as well.

One of the traditional images of Catrina, the classic skeletal, elegant female associated with Dia de los Muertos in Mexico

One of the traditional images of Catrina, the classic skeletal, elegant female associated with Dia de los Muertos in Mexico. (here depicted with flower petals, salt, dirt, etc.)

These altars are beautifully decorated with flowers, petals, other brightly colored elements that form designs, sugar skulls, the favorite food/drink of the deceased, etc. Additionally, market vendors are in full force selling Dia de los Muertos-related decor & food, particularly Pan de Muerto (a.k.a. “dead bread”, a tasty sugared bun or loaf w/a light orange taste to it). We didn’t make any major treks out of the area to the most popular venues for celebrating this holiday (i.e. Patzcuaro in Michoacan and Mixquic just southeast of DF). However, we did manage visits to Mercado Jamaica, Coyoacan (incl. the Frida Kahlo Museum & Museo Nacional de Culturas Populares– thanks to Ruth for the recommendation!), and the Edgar Allen Poe-themed ofrendas on display at UNAM.

A few photos of all the action below!

I bought several of these "papel picados" (cut paper) in various colors with a variety of fun, friendly skeleton themes...

I bought several of these "papel picados" (cut paper) at Mercado Jamaica in various colors with a variety of fun, friendly skeleton themes...

These were just a few of the calaveras de azucar (sugar skulls) for sale at Jamaica. The chocolate ones looked good enough to eat...

These were just a few of the calaveras de azucar (sugar skulls) for sale at Jamaica. The chocolate ones looked good enough to eat...

My favorite little white flower dogs from my last visit to Mercado Jamaica were now decked out in their festive Halloween best.

My favorite little white flower dogs from my last visit to Mercado Jamaica were now decked out in their festive Halloween best.

Next, off to Coyoacan… On Saturday, activities were still underway to finish assembling the ofrendas, so it was interesting to see the creation process in action.

We first stopped at the Frida Kahlo museum, aka her "Casa Azul" near the heart of Coyoacan. Despite not being a Frida history expert, I must say the museum was quite interesting & really well done... Seeing her house & gardens and getting a few snippets of her life w/Diego Rivera was time well spent.

We first stopped at the Frida Kahlo museum, aka her "Casa Azul" near the heart of Coyoacan. Despite not being a Frida history expert, I must say the museum was quite interesting & really well done... Seeing her house & gardens and getting a few snippets of her life w/Diego Rivera was time well spent.

Here's Diego del Muerto at the ofrenda in the garden of the Kahlo museum

Here's Diego del Muerto at the ofrenda in the garden of the Kahlo museum

...and another one of the folks hanging out at Frida's place...

...and another one of the folks hanging out at Frida's place...

Next, we wandered through Hidalgo Square where a number of ofrendas were in progress…

We saw this intricate design being filled in with copious amounts of table salt...

We saw this intricate design being filled in with copious amounts of table salt...

Ironically, many flowers died to create the amazing images for this holiday... particularly marigolds and cockscombs...

Ironically, many flowers died to create the amazing images for this holiday... particularly marigolds and cockscombs...

This ofrenda won points in my mind for its subversive, "government sucks" messaging

This ofrenda won points in my mind for its subversive, "government sucks" messaging

The fountain in the nearby Centenario Garden was taken over with this gorgeous display

The fountain in the nearby Centenario Garden was taken over with this gorgeous display

Next, onto the Museo Nacional de Culturas Populares, entrance shown above. Entry was free on Saturday, but normally it is a mere 11 pesos and they had an interesting exhibition about sugar that could still be worth a peek post-holiday.

Next, onto the Museo Nacional de Culturas Populares, entrance shown above. Entry was free this Saturday, but normally it is a mere 11 pesos and they had an interesting exhibition about sugar that could still be worth a peek post-holiday. Here's John bonding w/his mother-in-law. :)

Inside the museum, they had some excellent vendors selling Dia de los Muertos food & crafts. We were particularly impressed by this table of Catrinas.

Inside the museum, they had some excellent vendors selling Dia de los Muertos food & crafts. We were particularly impressed by this table of Catrinas.

In fact, we liked them enough that we made purchased two new little friends (for a grand total of $460 pesos, which seemed reasonable despite our lack of calavera-price-benchmarking)! I have to say, it is fascinating how the more you see things as a normal part of culture, the more they grow on you... If you had told me before we moved down here that I would someday purchase an 18-tall well-dressed skeleton woman + a fat cowboy skeleton with a dead rooster at his feet, I wouldn't have believed you for a minute. :)

In fact, we liked them enough that we made purchased two new little friends (for a grand total of $460 pesos, which seemed reasonable despite our lack of calavera-price-benchmarking)! I have to say, it is fascinating how the more you see things as a normal part of culture, the more they grow on you... If you had told me before we moved down here that I would someday purchase an 18-inch-tall trendily-dressed skeleton woman + a fat cowboy skeleton with a dead rooster at his feet, I wouldn't have believed you for a minute. :)

 

One of the hot controversies in Coyoacan is that after they remodeled the main square, they kicked all the street vendors out & relocated them to the Frida Kahlo Garden, a few blocks southeast of the square. The vendors are displeased, but I will say they are in a lovely area--especially when the main fountain is covered in flower petals.

One of the hot controversies in Coyoacan is that after they remodeled the main square, they kicked all the street vendors out & relocated them to the Frida Kahlo Garden, a few blocks southeast of the square. The vendors are displeased, but I will say they are in a lovely area--especially when the main fountain is covered in flower petals.

The wee skeleton figurines are always good for a laugh-- my mom purchased one of the dog+vet options that was the spitting image of our Jack Russell terrier Dave back in Nebraska. Note the pile of cheery horse-drawn hearses in the back...

The wee skeleton figurines are always good for a laugh-- my mom purchased one of the dog+vet options that was the spitting image of our Jack Russell terrier Dave back in Nebraska. Note the pile of cheery horse-drawn hearses in the back... (From the main mercado in Coyoacan)

Also inside the Mercado Coyoacan, we visited the Tostadas Coyoacan stall for a late morning snack. My mom's guide book informed us this is *the* original spot & not to be fooled by the mimics nearby. I can vouch--both the drinks & seafood here were AMAZING. I recommend an agua de sandia (watermelon) and a tostada de camaron (shrimp). Look at those piles of seafood, people!!

Also inside the Mercado Coyoacan, we visited the Tostadas Coyoacan stall for a late morning snack. My mom's guide book informed us this is *the* original spot & not to be fooled by the mimics nearby. I can vouch--both the drinks & seafood here were AMAZING. I recommend an agua de sandia (watermelon) and a tostada de camaron (shrimp). Look at those piles of seafood, people!!

My mom headed back for Nebraska yesterday, and then today John & I drove down to check out UNAM (the largest university in the Americas) & the ofrendas in homage to Edgar Allen Poe set up outside near the library. We gave these the verdict of “amusing, but we’ve seen better”.  Here are a couple of the more interesting ones, however…

A massive book display in the spirit of "The Black Cat"....

A massive book display in the spirit of "The Black Cat"....

I should know my Poe stories better... Anybody know the story where someone is cut in half or loses a head via an improvised guillotine?

I should know my Poe stories better... Anybody know the story where someone is cut in half or loses a head via an improvised guillotine?

One of the popular themes was a cemetary with headstones citing each of Poe's best known works. We were able to quickly identify "The Tell-tale Heart" and "The Pit and the Pendulum"... Some gravestones seemed a bit redundant; not sure if the students got a bit lazy in their Poe research?

One of the popular themes was a cemetary with headstones citing each of Poe's best known works. We were able to quickly identify "The Tell-tale Heart" and "The Pit and the Pendulum"... Some gravestones seemed a bit redundant; not sure if the students got a bit lazy in their Poe research?

The Pumas are the UNAM soccer team; here, John brings life to a player's body...

The Pumas are the UNAM soccer team; here, John brings life to a player's body...

This is just a smattering of the Dia de los Muertos action here in Mexico City, and as you can see, it’s a really interesting time to be here & learn more about one of the most important holidays in Mexico (second only to Dia de Guadalupe, we’re told!). Mark your calendars now for next year, people!! In closing, I’ll leave you with a decorating idea in case you have any blank walls in your house waiting for a theme…

This is a subtle interior design technique that I think will easily stretch both across the calendar year and across cultures... Any takers?? ;)

This is a subtle interior design technique that I think will easily stretch both across the calendar year and across cultures... Any takers?? ;)

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