Dead with Hunger

the arts | visual arts |

Altar Vision: Yowza East Bay artist Susan Danis is among those contributing to the Art Works Downtown exhibit celebrating Day of the Dead.

By Amanda Yskamp

What do the dead hunger for? What could tempt them back from the other side? For the Días de los Muertos holiday, officially observed Nov. 1–2, celebrants throughout Mexico, here and Central America make ofrendas, or offerings, of the deceased’s favorite food and drink. If the aromas of the traditional copal (an incense made of tree resin) or flores de cempazuchitl (marigolds) aren’t enough to draw the dead back, then the food—heaps of fruit, loaves of bread, plates of tamales and mole—or the sight of their own brand of liquor or cigarettes certainly will.

Día de los Muertos actually starts on Oct. 31, when the souls begin to arrive. The first guests are the deceased children on Día de los Angelitos. In Aztec times, it was believed that those little angels who died while still breastfeeding went to a part of Paradise where there grew a tree of sustenance covered in human breasts. Los angelitos sat under it, open-mouthed, drinking their fill of the nourishing breast milk. Today, dead children’s altars are laden with sweets of all kinds: golletes, a pink doughnut-type bread, symbolizing the cycle of life and death; chocolates; and cups of milk or atole, a warm cornmeal beverage. Nov. 2 is reserved for adults and those who died in war.

No altar is complete without the four elements of water, earth, wind and fire. The long passage back to the land of the living tires a soul and creates a great thirst. For that, a glass of water is necessary. Bread and other foods are made from earthly ingredients. The papel picado, intricately cut paper banners, catch in the wind. Candles lit for the dead harness the element of fire at the altar and invoke the spirit of the deceased. And for all the dead there must be salt for purification. Calaveras de azucar, sugar skulls, are also essential, bearing the name of the deceased written in frosting. This symbolic consumption of death makes it one’s own, in recognition of death’s constant presence in life.

It’s customary during these days to share memories of the deceased, either at home or at the cemetery, to tell jokes, to reflect on the nature of mortality, and to celebrate the bounty and beauty of life’s riches—one of which, of course, is eating. The ofrendas may lure the dead back, but without bodies, the dead are unable to actually consume the tempting dishes. That lucky task belongs to the living. Why not try your hand at some of the traditional dishes? After all, hay más tiempo que vida (“there’s more time than life”).

Atole de Leche
2 c. water
1/2 c. ground white corn meal (masa)
1 1-inch cinnamon stick
4 c. milk
1 c. sugar
Mix corn meal and water together. Add cinnamon and boil the mixture for about 10 minutes. Add milk and sugar and bring to a boil again, stirring constantly. Remove cinnamon stick and serve warm.

— Purée a cup of fruit (strawberries or pineapple are particularly good) and stir in, or spoon on top of, mixture.
— Add 2 3-ounce disks of Mexican chocolate (Nestle’s Abuelita and the Mexican Ibarra brands are found in Mexican markets and Safeway) for champurrado or chocolate atole.

Calaveras de Azucar (Sugar Skulls)
2 c. powdered sugar
1 egg white
1 tbsp. light corn syrup
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1/3 c. corn starch
Food coloring and fine paintbrush or colored frosting
Sift powdered sugar. Combine egg white, syrup and vanilla. Add sugar to wet mixture gradually. Mix with fingers until the mixture forms a ball.
Sprinkle cornstarch on table. Shape mixture into smooth ball. Wrap tightly in plastic and chill until ready to use. (Mixture will keep for months.) Shape into skulls. When dry, color them as you wish.

Days of the Dead
El Día de los Muertos has rapidly grown in popularity, with Petaluma leading the way in the North Bay, offering a huge slate of daily activities as well as filling the downtown area richly with community altars. Here are some of the upcoming Day of the Dead celebrations you won’t want to miss.

Art Works Downtown Through Nov. 2, Day of the Dead invitational art exhibit with work by Armando Quintero, Tessie Barrera-Scharaga, Cindy Pavlinac, C. J. Grossman, Susan Danis, Zoe Harris, Kathleen Hanna, Ellen Litwiller, Katya McCulloch, Kathleen Edwards, Wende Stitt, Susan Danis and the Bohemian‘s own “Slice of Life” cartoonist Jaime Crespo. Reception: Thursday, Oct. 25, 5pm to 7pm. (1337 Fourth St., San Rafael. 415.451.8119.)

Petaluma Through Nov. 3, art and altars throughout town; map available at the Petaluma Historical Museum & Library (20 Fourth St.). Oct. 24 at 7pm, “The Path of Life and Death,” bilingual storytelling with Marcela Ronan and Barbara Spicer and music of ancient Mexico with Carlos Lopez (Copperfield’s Bookstore, 140 Kentucky St.). Oct. 25 at 7pm, reception for “Soul Parade: The Art of Day of the Dead” (Mail Depot, 40 Fourth St.). Oct. 26 at 7pm, Tengo No Me Dejas Nunca, a film exploring the world of tango (Mahoney Library, SRJC Petaluma Campus, 680 Sonoma Mountain Pkwy.). Oct. 27 at noon, make traditional sugar skulls, paper flowers and masks (St. Vincent de Paul Church hall, Western and Howard streets). Oct. 30 at 6:30pm, reception and masquerade party (Aurora Colors Gallery, 145 Kentucky St.). Nov. 1 at 7pm, musical celebration with Cuyu, altars and special foods to honor those who have passed (SRJC Petaluma Campus, room 191, 680 Sonoma Mountain Pkwy.). Nov. 2 at 10am, bilingual story time for preschoolers (Petaluma Library, 100 Fairgrounds Drive). Nov. 2 at 6pm, traditional procession with giant puppets and mariachis, food and dance by the Folkloric Ballet Netzahualcoyotl follow (from Helen Putnam Plaza to St. Vincent de Paul Plaza). Nov. 3 at 2pm, “CantaFlor: A Journey Through My Country” musical event (Petaluma Library, 100 Fairgrounds Drive). Nov. 3 at 7pm, sacred circle dance (St. Vincent de Paul Church hall, Western and Howard streets). For more info, go to

Santa Rosa Dia de los Muertos celebration in Old Courthouse Square, Thursday–Friday, Nov. 1–2. Pomo and Aztec dancers, Ballet Folklorico and zumba group as well as children’s circles, storytelling, arts and crafts, movies, poetry, live music and more. Thursday, 9am to 8pm; Friday, 9am to 7pm. Courthouse Square, Mendocino Avenue between Third and Fourth streets, Santa Rosa. Free. 707.524.1559.

Sonoma County Museum Through Nov. 4, Day of the Dead altar exhibition. 425 Seventh St., Santa Rosa. 707.579.1500.

Sonoma Valley Museum of Art Oct. 31–Nov. 4. SVMA’s eighth annual exhibition of commemorative altars celebrating departed generations and family members staged in partnership with local Latino families and Sonoma’s La Luz Center. Community Day: Saturday, Nov. 3, 1pm to 4pm. Free. 551 Broadway, Sonoma. 707.939.7862.

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