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Mexican artisans keep alive Day of the Dead sugar skull tradition

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Updated: December 2, 2012 6:40AM

He’s a diabetic. She doesn’t like candy. But for Elvira Garcia and Alejandro Mondragon, a pair of Mexican artisanal candy makers, life has never been sweeter.

The couple, married for 40 years, are in their 17th year of a seasonal stint living in Pilsen and working at the National Museum of Mexican Art, 1852 West 19th St. There, the Toluca, Mexico, natives demonstrate the more than 400-year-old tradition of alfeñique, creating skulls and coffins from sugar and water that are used in celebrations of Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

When museum staff asked them about showcasing their art in Chicago, the couple didn’t hesitate.

“I was so excited I told my wife I would go even if they didn’t pay me,” Mondragon said.

Since he was a 12-year-old boy in his grandmother’s cocina, the 62-year-old Mondragon has spun sugar into art, slowly mastering the craft that has sustained his family for four generations. One of 12 children, he and three siblings are the only ones who still make alfeñique, a family tradition spanning 150 years.

“This was the family business,” Mondragon said, speaking through an interpreter, as he stood in front of a table of hundreds of skulls molded and colorfully decorated by him, his wife or their 36-year-old daughter, also named Elvira.

About an hour outside of Mexico City, Toluca is famous for its annual fair, an open-air market filled with colorful stalls of families selling candy, especially alfeñiques. Garcia said she enjoys bringing a piece of Toluca to Chicago, a city the couple never imagined visiting before they started working at the museum.

“I was proud I got to exhibit my tradition,” Garcia said, also through a translator.

The first year, thinking business would be slow, they only brought three molds.

“It definitely wasn’t enough,” Garcia said.

This year, 250 clay molds made the journey with them from Mexico. The couple is on pace to sell more than 30,000 skulls in Chicago before they leave on Sunday.

The annual Dia de los Muertos exhibit is the museum’s longest-running and most popular, bringing in more than 600 school groups this year during its three-month run through Dec. 16.

Celebrated on Nov. 1 and Nov. 2, Roman Catholic All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, Dia de Los Muertos mixes the holy day traditions with indigenous customs honoring Mictecacihuatl, a goddess who presided over Aztec festivals of the dead.

In Mexico and at the Mondragon table in the museum, guests can have inscribed the name of a deceased person they want to honor on the sugar skull.

“There’s a healing component to Day of the Dead, and there’s also the whole concept of honoring someone,” said Carlos Tortolero, National Museum of Mexican Art president. “In the U.S. they have this thing — don’t cry. Any shrink will tell you that’s crazy. If you want to cry, cry. You want to tell a story, tell a story. This is all about dealing with death in the best possible way.”

He added: “We all die. We’re all in this together.”

The Mondragons have become an integral part of the museum’s celebration through the years, Tortolero said.

“They help make everything better,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many times I was somewhere and someone says ‘I was in high school (on a field trip to the museum)’ and they talk about the skulls and now they go back every year.”

The Mondragons live in a museum-owned apartment across the street from the museum. Starting in late August, the couple spends three hours every morning mixing 30 pounds of sugar with water, then pouring the liquid into clay molds. They make about 800 skulls a day through Oct. 20, when they have enough surplus to last through Nov. 2.

Two years ago, Mondragon had a brush with the cold reality behind the holiday as he underwent surgery to remove a kidney.

“I was almost dead,” he said. “My main concern was that nobody was going to make the alfeñique, that nobody in the family knew how to do it.”

His three children stepped up, and he’s trying to teach his grandchildren in Mexico. But Mondragon acknowledges that of the 40 families in Toluca who once sold handmade alfeñique, only about five remain.

“The tradition dies when the families stop,” he said.

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