With the Day of the Dead right around the corner, Casa Bonampak, an artisan shop on Valencia and 21st streets, is making sure that the Mission community can help keep the age-old tradition of crafting sugar skulls alive.
Day of the Dead celebrations, which take place on November 2 every year, involve elaborate altars and decorations in honor of dead loved ones. Families gather to pray for the souls of their dead and celebrate their lives by preparing special meals and offerings, placed before photographs of the special person or relative. Some of the best-known decorative items used in this celebration are sugar skulls — skulls of different sizes made of sugar and decorated with colored pieces of foil, small patterns done in powdered sugar, and the names of the departed.
It can take days to organize and design an altar — every detail of the decorations is rich with history, so it’s never too early to get started.
Miguel Quintana is a fifth-generation sugar skull artisan from Puebla, Mexico. For the past 12 years he has held a workshop at Casa Bonampak, giving demonstrations of his craft to dozens of onlookers and helping them decorate their own sugar skulls.
Today, sugar skulls can be created at home with meringue mix, granulated sugar and plastic molds, which are available in most artisan and craft shops. However, the art of making traditional sugar skulls involves cooking, heirloom molds and years of experience.
“In Mexico there are so many different traditions and it’s so beautiful that we can’t let them disappear,” said Quintana as he stirred a mixture of boiling water and sugar.
Quintana has been traveling to California to share his skills for over 20 years. The clay molds he carries with him are more than 100 years old, passed on from generation to generation, crafted from material that can withstand extreme temperatures. His father distributed the heirloom molds to all of Quintana’s siblings, giving them all a small piece of their history and passing on the knowledge that was given to him.
Unfortunately, traditional sugar skull craftwork is dying out in Mexico, offering diminishing job opportunities for its artisans. Of his 11 siblings, only Quintana and another brother have continued the craft. Quintana hopes his two children will one day continue in his footsteps.
“I wouldn’t obligate them to do it, but I do want them to continue the craft,” he said.
Quintana knows his craft is fading, but he is hopeful that sharing traditions will help keep part of his culture alive.
“In Mexico, Halloween celebrations are becoming very popular, and I am glad that I can come here and promote our own traditions,” he said.