Make your own sweet skulls for a Day of the Dead altar

Sugar Skull Making Class

When: 10 a.m. to noon or 1:30 - 3:30 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 23

Cost: Sliding sale of $10 - $50

Where: Sonoma Community Center, 276 E. Napa St., Sonoma

Phone: 707-938-4626;

For more information about Diego Marcial Rios and his other workshops, visit

It’s the most recognizable symbol of Mexico’s Day of the Dead.

Brightly painted, frequently bejeweled and inevitably flashing their toothy smiles, calaveras, or skulls, adorn altars and grave sites throughout Mexico and increasingly in the U.S. during the festive Dia de los Muertos.

If you intend to create your own vibrant home altar or ofrenda to remember departed loved ones for Day of the Dead, you’ll need a sugar skull or two. They set the right tone for a celebration that honors the departed for all the joy and love they brought to life. They are not meant to be frightening; rather, they take the fear out of death.

These, of course, are not real skulls but works of art, made from a variety of materials, the most common being simple sugar found on the grocery store shelf.

In the 16th century, sugar was as precious as gold, says Diego Marcial Rios, an East Bay artist of Mexican heritage, who teaches workshops in the arts of sugar skulls and mask making.

But sugar was abundant in Mexico, which was being exploited to grow the crop for the European market after the expeditions of Christopher Columbus.

“Sugar was becoming a big industry in Central Mexico and had become a big industry in Brazil,” Rios says. “There was a lack of materials like silver and metals. But sugar was all over the place. The populace had access to it as a material and adapted it as an art form.

“Within maybe 20 years, there were 500 sugar plantations in Central America,” he adds. “The reason? Ka-ching, ka-ching ka-ching — bringing in big bucks.”

Rios will teach two classes in the art of sugar skull making Saturday, Oct. 23, at the Sonoma Community Center. He will explain how to make a sugar skull using a mixture of sugar and meringue powder and placing that in premade plastic molds, which are commonly available. The skulls then must dry for eight hours in the sun or be baked for 20 minutes in a 200-degree oven.

But for expediency, he will have premade skulls on hand that attendees can decorate and take home for their own altars.

Italian influence

Italian friars, sent to Mexico to convert the native people to Roman Catholicism after Hernando Cortes’ conquest of the Aztecs, introduced the idea of using sugar for sculpture.

The friars used the precious commodity in Europe to make small religious figures like angels. For the indigenous people, however, skulls were a more potent and familiar symbol and a natural one to adopt, Rios says. The skull was a key part of the iconography of the ancient people of Mexico.

“All those cultures used the skull; the Aztec in particular used it in a lot of their relief sculptures. In paintings and murals, they also had decorated skulls. They thought it was a source of power and spirituality. They thought the skull was the essence of an individual,” Rios says.

The Aztecs also used skulls to send political messages of intimidation. They would stack them up at the entrance to their cities to scare people.

“If you don’t give in to us, this is where you’ll end up (was the message). And the Aztecs ruled through force,” Rios says.

In their effort to convert indigenous people, the Spaniards tried to entice them to celebrate the Catholic All Saints Day by contending that their Day of the Dead rituals were very similar. Although they fell around the same time of year, they were in fact vastly different, Rios says.

Over time, Dia de los Muertos evolved into a melding of the two practices, and the glittering, gorgeous decorated skulls became part of the traditional altar offerings.

Imagination allowed

There are no set rules to follow in decorating a sugar skull; let your imagination and creativity run free, Rios says.

The skulls are painted with royal icing, made from confectioners’ sugar and egg whites, which hardens, unlike buttercream frosting. You can add adornments using icing or Tacky glue. Rios likes feathers, sequins and rhinestones, items easy to find at dollar, craft and fabric stores.

“Let your mind wander. I’ve seen people add all kinds of stuff, from horses to names to just nice designs,” says Rios, who is known for a surrealistic and expressionist style. He works in Newark in a range of media, from woodcuts and graphics to painting and mask making. Most of his work carries powerful themes of political activism and social justice.

You can decorate your sugar skull in memory of a particular loved one, either in a design that would please the person or with symbols representative of his or her life.

It is believed that during Day of the Dead, celebrated on Nov. 1 and 2, the souls of the departed return home for a visit. The altars, with candles, food and drink and other objects, will entice them.

Growing up in Fresno and later the Bay Area, Rios was enchanted by Day of the Dead, with all its mysterious imagery and ritual.

“In the mind of a young person, it is great,” he says. “All of these colors, the food. Being a Mexican child is wonderful. You don’t know what’s real and what’s not. You live in this world of the fantastic. It’s like you’re in both worlds.”

When he was 3, Rios went with his father to see “El hombre de Fuego” (“The Man of Fire”), the great mural by José Clemente Orozco in Guadalajara. He knew then he would be an artist.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in history and art from UC Berkeley and master’s degrees in art education and fine art from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

But Rios, as an artist driven by a passion for social justice, firmly believes you must also put ideas into action. He is also a certified paralegal, has been a private investigator and has worked most of his adult life in social services to help the poor and people of color. He currently works for a large social service agency in the East Bay helping people find housing, education and jobs.

“It certainly helps me in my art because I understand the system,” says Rios, who grew up steeped in protest. His father frequently gave refuge in the family home to United Farmworker founder and leader Cesar Chavez, who Rios remembers vividly.

He also has a lively sense of playfulness and fun, which he finds infused in the celebration of Day of the Dead. Yet teaching its traditions and the history behind them also is empowering, he says.

“An individual who knows their history and culture is difficult, if not impossible, to oppress.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or OnTwitter @megmcconahey.

Sugar Skull Making Class

When: 10 a.m. to noon or 1:30 - 3:30 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 23

Cost: Sliding sale of $10 - $50

Where: Sonoma Community Center, 276 E. Napa St., Sonoma

Phone: 707-938-4626;

For more information about Diego Marcial Rios and his other workshops, visit

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.


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