The sweet afterlife
Sacramento artists Jesus Barela and Rob-O craft Día de los Muertos traditions with intricately decorated sugar skulls
With its skull symbolism and other nods to death, some mistake Día de los Muertos as a means to witchcraft or merely an extension of Halloween. In reality, the holiday, also known as Day of the Dead, represents neither.
Rather, the two-day festival, which can be traced back thousands of years to pre-Columbian Mexico, celebrates the quandaries of death by honoring the beauty of life. Specifically, people use the time to remember those who have died.
Día de los Muertos, which takes place every November 1 and 2, is linked to the Catholic holidays All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, and over the centuries, it has grown in global popularity. Earlier this year, The Walt Disney Company even attempted to trademark the phrase “Dia de los Muertos” for an upcoming children’s movie—don’t worry, the company lost its bid.
The first day is dedicated to the souls of children, followed by a tribute to adults. On both days, handmade wooden altars are decorated with photographs and ofrendas—or offerings—reflecting the person’s favorite items while alive.
Whether such gifts often translate to candy and toys, Grandpa’s stiffest drink, or Grandma’s tastiest homemade meal, they all symbolize key details that represent the deceased loved ones.
Sugar skulls, decorated treats meant to commemorate the dead, are another popular offering.
In Sacramento, master sugar-skull makers Rob-O and Jesus Barela both create works that draw in the curious as they aim to preserve the culture.
Every October for the past 15 years, Barela has taught art classes in preparation for Día de los Muertos in association with La Raza Galería Posada and, more recently, Spanglish Arte.
These lessons, he says, provide an opportunity to educate the community about Mexican cultural traditions.
“Kids to grandmas to adults … sometimes, I get whole families. Anyone can do it,” Barela says of his classes.
The materials make for a unique art form, he adds.
“Sugar is such a different material. [The skulls] are easy to break, but it’s the experience of doing it. As you’re decorating, you’re reflecting, and I think that [chance to reflect] is the main idea behind sugar skulls.”
The skulls, usually decorated with bright frosting, foils or sequins, make for a colorful ofrenda—but not necessarily an edible one. Certainly, although they look as appetizing as candy, Barela cautions they’re not exactly dessert.
“I wouldn’t recommend [eating them],” says Barela with a laugh. “You’re handling [the skulls] with your hands during the whole class.”
As such, the skulls are also relatively easy to make, he adds.
“If you can decorate a cake, it’s … similar,” he says.
As a child, Barela recalls buying sugar skulls with his name written on the forehead. As such, he adds, his Mexican heritage and customs taught him not be afraid of death.
“When somebody died in our family, there would be their picture hanging and a candle—just in remembrance,” says Barela of his family’s traditions.
Now, through the class, Barela says he’s able to explain the symbolism behind sugar skulls to parents and children. The purpose, he adds, is to dissolve the taboo he believes many associate with the holiday.
“Before, people would ask, ’Is that witchcraft?’ Day of the Dead is not about gore or witchcraft or voodoo,” Barela says. “It’s a day to remember your loved ones.”
For artist Rob-O, memories are crafted by way of customized plastic molds made from a vacuum-form table. The result are skulls that come in a variety of shapes, some weighing more than 30 pounds.
Each season, Rob-O showcases his glass-encased, vibrantly colored sugar skulls in area art shows. Currently, his works are on display through January 5, 2014, as part of a Día de los Muertos exhibit at The California Museum.
Still, he says he remembers a time when galleries snubbed his art. But with the help of an uncle who owns a custom-wood-furniture business, the artist found a way to combat such snobbery by encasing his works in sleek black oak shadow boxes.
“When I started trying to push myself into galleries, I would hear, ’That’s just a craft. That isn’t art,’” says Rob-O, who also teaches demonstration classes and regularly visits elementary and high-school students.
“I don’t want it to be [considered] a craft. I want it to be art because it doesn’t exist unless you create it,” he adds. “But, oh yeah, put a frame on there, and everything changes.”
The artist says his introduction to sugar skulls doubled as an emotional outlet for healing after his mother died five years ago. Rob-O, who is biracial, says he never knew his father, who was of Mexican descent. He also never celebrated Día de los Muertos until his wife Imelda researched the holiday as a way to memorialize her deceased mother-in-law.
Shortly after, the couple hosted a party at its Elk Grove home and invited friends to bring various ofrendas representing lost loved ones. The intimate gathering included a large altar and enough sugar skulls for everyone to decorate.
Now, in keeping true to Mexican tradition, Rob-O says he gains a great sense of pride when he creates skulls.
Barela agrees. Sugar skulls, he says, are a form of creativity and expression.
“Sugar skulls have become art,” he says. “And some artists take sugar to a different level.”