The Artistry of Alfenique

Sweet and edible sculptures

On November 2nd every year, a unique and vibrant cultural tradition, Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is observed in Mexico, parts of Latin America and in certain areas of the United States, notably the Southwest. It is a family day when the spirits of the beloved departed return to earth once a year to be reunited with their relatives, a special event that dates back to pre-Columbian times. The Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations viewed death as a continuation and thus part of life, whereas the Spaniards who came after viewed death as the end of life.  Considering those views as sacrilegious and pagan, the Spaniards tried unsuccessfully to eradicate the practice. Instead, in order to accommodate the ritual and make it more Christian, the Spaniards moved it to coincide with Catholicism's All Saints' Day (Nov. 1)and All Souls' Day(Nov. 2) which is when it is celebrated today.
 
 In most cases November 1 is relegated to mourning children who have passed away, and November 2 is reserved for adults. Sometimes the dates are said to be October 31-November 2 because it includes the preparations leading up the main event on November 2, and so the plural term is used, Dias de los Muertos, or Days of the Dead. Dia de los Muertos is both a joyous and spiritual occasion, serving to bring together the living and the dead.  A Catholic ritual mixed with traditional folk culture, the event provides an opportunity to reflect upon the cycle of life and death.  It is not the same as Halloween, although sometimes confused with it, as both take place at the same time of year and both involve skeletons (and candy!) and have to do with death, but the former views death as scary, something to be feared, whereas the tone of the Dia de los Muertos holiday is quite different, more reverent and serious and views death in a positive way.
 
During this ages-old festival ofrendas, or altars, are erected in homes , churches, public buildings and at gravesites. They are covered with candles, flowers, fruits, incense and photos of saints and the deceased ancestors being honored. Aromatic flowers, usually marigolds, also grace the altars.  A large part of the celebration involves food, especially those that the departed liked, which are then either eaten or given away.  Pan de Muerto, or Bread of the Dead, is a traditional component of the ritual, as are pumpkin candy and chocolate. Leading up to the big day market stalls are replete with special food and crafts for this event, including folk art made of tin, paper, wood, clay and papier-mâché, many of which have taken weeks and even up to a year to create.
 
 Alfenique pieces, or sugar sculptures, are especially popular for Dia de los Muertos, alfenique being the term for the production of the sculptured pastry.  These colorful and often elaborate sculptures, created by artisans from a simple mixture of confectioners' sugar and lemon juice, depict skulls, hearts, animals, various foods and fruit baskets and a myriad of other subjects. Sometimes the skulls have names inscribed on their foreheads.  They are bought in local markets in the weeks leading up to the festival to be included as offerings for the deceased, as edible treats for children, or as gifts for friends and loved ones.
 
In Mexico there are two main centers famous for their annual alfenique production: Toluca, a city in the State of Mexico, and Guanajuato, a city in the State of Michoacan,with attendant competitions and much fanfare, according to Ann Seiferle-Valencia,  Curator of Latin American  Art at the Tucson Museum of Art in Arizona. Alfenique fairs might start in mid October and run for several weeks, through Nov. 2.  A show of some of these colorful sugar sculptures from Guanajuato was featured at the museum earlier this year.  On November 2 the Tucson Museum of Art will hold its annual celebration of Dia de los Muertos, featuring altars built by schools and community partners, mariachi performances and other festivities.  Museum visitors can also meet the authors of "Day of the Dead," Kitty Williams and Stevie Mack, on Saturday November 5th.

Dia de los Muertos celebrations have been held annually in towns in Arizona such as Mesa, Chandler,  Guadalupe and at Arizona State University. In Mexico traditions vary within areas of the country and from town to town.  Places known for their Dia de los Muertos celebrations are cities such as Guanajuato (State of Guanajuato), Patzcuaro, Janitzio and Morelia (State of Michoacan)and Oaxaca (State of Oaxaca)and other towns in the states of Puebla and  San Luis Potosi, and in the villate of Ajijic on the north side of Lake Chapala (State of Jalisco) in the Guadalajara region.  In some areas the event has become a tourist attraction, a mixed blessing, with tourists at times celebrating Halloween as well and not always respecting the local traditions, to the extent that locals sometimes keep their observances within their homes. In other instances tourists buy the native holiday food and crafts, thus helping the local economy and also helping to keep the tradition alive.
 
For more information on Dia de los Muertos, read "The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico" by Elizabeth Carmichael and "Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead: The Day of the Dead in Mexico and Beyond" by Stanley Brandes, and are available on www.amazon.com. The Museum's celebration will take place Nov. 2, from 6-9 pm and is free.The reading and signing of the "Day of the Dead" book takes place at the Museum on Saturday Nov. 5 at 11 am; it is free with museum admission.For more information visit www.tucsonmuseumofart.org.  Note: the same authors also produced a video entitled "Flickering Lights:Days of the  Dead,"( vhs) including a teacher's guide; both are available through www.crizmac.com.

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