At the National Museum of Mexican Art, 20 high school students from Ohio watch as blocks of white sugar are transformed into calaveritas de azucar or sugar skulls.
The Mondragon family is famous for their candy business in Toluca, in southern Mexico. Alejandro Mondragon says at one time, around 80 families in Mexico made them. Today, only 10 produce the seasonal treats.
In a house near the museum, Alejandro Mondragon watches a copper cauldron with boiling syrup made with 10 parts sugar and one part water. It’ll take two hours to cook before it’s ready to be poured into clay molds.
“I was the one in the family who really enjoyed making them,” Alejandro said. “We have 12 brothers and sisters in our family. Maybe it’s the vanity talking, but I was the one who taught my siblings how to make them. I was the one who worked the hardest on these candies. Because I always liked sweets.”
The skulls are a variety of sizes. From as small as a quarter to as large as a human head. The Mondragons worry their 150-year tradition won’t last many more generations.
Alejandro’s 9-year-old grandson wants to follow in his footsteps. But Mondragon can’t be sure the boy will stay with it.
“But we don’t know if he’ll enjoy making them later on,” Mondragon said. “Because it’s a very lonely job. You’re indoors all day. You don’t leave the house for anything. No parties. Nothing when you’re working. But I don’t want the tradition to die. Right now, the person who’ll most likely continue is my daughter the one who’s with us here in Chicago.”
Back at the museum, Mondragon’s daughter, 32-year-old Elvira, holds bags filled with sugar, lemon juice and vegetable based food coloring. She decorates each skull by hand with bright colors and vibrant patterns.
“Because at the end of the day, we’re all going to die,” Elvira said. “And death is part of life. That’s why we decorate the skulls with vibrant colors. So that people understand it’s not something sad. Mexicans love day of the dead. Because we remember those who are no longer with us.”
The Mondragons will make around 25,000 skulls before going back to Mexico in November. 61-year-old Alejandro has type 2 diabetes and only one kidney. He’s not sure how much longer he’ll travel to Chicago to make the candies. Elvira knows it’ll be up to her to continue the family tradition.
“Here and in Mexico, there are many doctors, many architects,” Elvira said. “But what my father does making sugar skulls, we have a lot of pride in this. Because in Mexico there aren’t too many people who do this. And in the United States, there’s nobody. He’s the only one who dedicates his life to this …We have to take advantage of this craft that our ancestors left for us.”
As the students from Ohio snack on the sugary treats, 16-year-old Brendan Bilek patiently waits for his baseball sized skull to be decorated.
Brendan Bilek: “I’m looking at a sugar skull for my cousin Brian,” Bilek said. “He was a DJ and me and him were very very close. And I believe he passed of an accidental drug overdose a little over a year ago.”
Yolanda Perdomo: What are you going to do with it when you bring it back to Ohio?
Brendan Bilek: “Definitely not eating it. That would be kind of disrespectful.”