©2010 by Fabienne Lopez
On my way to the gym, I pass by Galeria de La Raza, a local art gallery in my neighborhood. Dead stop. The vision in the Galeria’s window grabs me. I am fascinated, enthralled, mesmerized.
Mounds of fabulously decorated sugar skulls are on display. Rows after rows of skulls lay neatly in the window, each of them resting on top of a white sheet of paper displaying the name of its creator.
Forget the gym! A huge grin spreads all over my face. I have to go in to check the skulls.
Inside, a festive and fun atmosphere predominates. Schoolchildren are busy dressing these small wonders of sugar, water and meringue powder. They decorate each of the skulls in a joyous, whimsical, almost happy style. Icing in bright and vibrant colors like orange, pink, yellow, blue and red is used to follow the contours of the skull, outline the eyes, mouth and teeth. Different colors are used for the outside of the eye and the pupil, and for the mouth and teeth.
Some of these little sweet treasures shimmer with beads and colorful foils. Others are finely decorated with flowers, usually tiny marigolds, feathers and cake candles. Many are adorned with colored sequins, tacky-craps, tiaras. All of them display rich, elaborate, intricate and ornate designs. Piped dots are intricately placed on the head and sides alongside with drawn flowers and vines and squiggly lines.
The overall effect is cool and spooky at the same time.
Day of the Dead – November 2nd
The sugar skulls are a vivid reminder that the Day of the Dead (El Día de los Muertos or All Souls’ Day — November 2) is around the corner. And a vivid reminder that I miss home.
I haven’t lived in Brazil or France for well over 14 years now and not one November 2nd goes by without that inherent sense of nostalgia. I miss the air of it, the solemnity, the bright colors, the crowded cemeteries full of those who go to honor their dead.
In both countries November 1st and November 2nd are a huge holiday. November 1st celebrates All the known and unknown Saints of the Catholic Church. The next day (November 2nd ) is dedicated to the memory of relatives who have passed away. The entire country shuts down. Banks and government institutions are closed. So are most stores, except for flower shops, churches and cemeteries. Church bells chime to celebrate this solemnity of solemnities.
Celebrating the Day of the Dead
I remember celebrating the Day of the Dead with my mother by bringing chrysanthemums, and sometimes heathers, to the grave of my grandparents. The gesture of placing flowers on their gravestones bring heartfelt memories back: the rides on the merry-go-round across my grandparents house, or banging my grandfather’s gravel in his Chambers at the Courthouse.
All around the graves wave a sea of a thousand chrysanthemums in a rainbow of colors interspersed with flickering candles. People walking around with hoes to weed out their ancestor’s small plot of land, buckets of water sloshing… all walking back and forth to the communal water tap so they can scrub down their headstones and make them tidy. Children dressed in their finery run around the tombs, playing hide and seek. Everywhere people kneel to pray and update the departed on family events.
Even though my father was American, Halloween was not part of my upbringing. I guess it was a little hard to go “trick or treat” when you were the only kid on the block to do so. Therefore I do not feel that sense of connection with Halloween that I do with the Day of the Dead.
I guess what I like the most about the Day of the Dead is that the holiday is not about sadness but it is about celebration. I heard that the tradition of Halloween has started to caught up in the last few years in Brazil and France. It is not officially acknowledged, although numerous restaurants and shops display pumpkins and ghoulish decorations in black and orange. It is more an adult party than a trick or treat for activity for kids.
Back at the Galeria de la Raza, after taking pictures of the skulls, I talked with Michele Simons, owner of the Sugar Skull Gallery in San Francisco who organized the workshops for the kids at the Galeria de la Raza. She showed me the sugar skulls she had bought many years ago in remembrance of her parents. She had just lost her mother back in Mexico. There she stumbled upon the celebration and became passionate about this art form. See more of her sugar skulls on display: http://www.thesugarskullgallery.com/sf/welcome.
As I walk back home, I feel bittersweet. If I could, would I go back to Brazil? I ask myself this sometimes, then realize it’s all hypothetical and hypothetical questions can be dangerous and misleading. There’s nothing there for me, my family and loved ones are all gone. My family is here now. I can’t go back, and that’s good.
But I still can go the gym and that’s good too!
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Photos Credits: Photos taken by me with permission of artist Michele Simons