Delia and Rogelio Hernández, makers of sugar skulls. Delia and Rogelio Hernández, makers of sugar skulls.

Family’s sugar skulls a 100-year tradition

Now in their 80s, Toluca couple carry on making the candy for the Day of the Dead

Making sugar skulls for the Day of the Dead has been a tradition for over 100 years in Delia Hernández’s family, and at the age of 80 she is still making them.

Hernández and her husband of over 60 years, Rogelio, who is 81, are among the few people in Toluca, state of México, who know how to make the sugary confections, called calaveritas in Spanish, in the traditional way.

“There are five or 10 families that really know how to do the whole process. Some prefer to buy the things already done and resell them, because it’s a lot of work . . . Making these figures is special for me, it’s my way of remembering and honoring my mother and abuelita [granny],” Hernández told the newspaper Milenio.

Making the colorful sugar skulls and close to 150 other figures starts by mixing water, sugar and lemon juice, and bringing everything to a boil until the mix acquires a caramel-like texture.

Using a rolling pin, Hernández spreads the mixture, known at this stage as alfeñique, and then presses thin slices on to clay molds. The sugary dough is left one day to settle and dry.

At that point the creativity of craftspeople such as Hernández and her husband are applied to the process, by using colorful sequins and tissue paper, vegetable paints and even cake icing to decorate the figures in detail.

“There’s no easy part in this process,” said Hernández’s husband, “everything has its method and timing. It is trying and one needs to be very patient.”

In order to be ready for buyers in late October and early November, the couple go to work on their sugar figures in April. Along with the widely known skulls — of all imaginable sizes — the couple makes farm animals.

“If someone has a deceased relative that liked horses, they put a sugar horse on the altar, or a small sugar doll for girls to play with.”

Hernández lamented that her children are as not as involved in the sugar skull manufacturing process.

“I don’t have much stamina left, that’s why I’ve told my grandchildren that they have to start to learn, [because] it’s their turn to carry on the tradition,” she said.

“We cannot let this or any other tradition be lost because it is the only thing we have, as Mexicans, that represents us.”

Source: Milenio (sp)

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