The colorful dead
Middle school students learn history and art painting from sugary skulls
About 100 children from Mountain View's two middle schools got a hands-on lesson on a centuries-old Mexican tradition last week, as they decorated miniature human skulls sculpted out of sugar at the Community Center Building at Rengstorff Park.
On Oct. 18, the children — about 50 each from Crittenden and Graham middle schools — gathered in the basement of the community center, where they listened to a brief lecture from Sacramento-based artist Rob-O, who specializes in the decorative sugar skulls, most commonly associated with the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration, on Nov. 1 and Nov. 2 of each year.
"Although it may sound morbid, the day of the Dead is a bright and cheerful festival where people remember loved ones who have died," one of the Crittenden students read aloud from a handout explaining the holiday, which coincides with the Catholic celebrations of All Saints Day and All Souls Day.
Rob-O told the kids about how he first began making sugar skull art to commemorate his mother after she died. He ultimately parlayed his colorful creations into a career — first showing off the skulls at street fairs and then getting them displayed in local galleries.
In fact, it was because of Rob-O's booth at the Mountain View Art & Wine Festival that he was invited to share his work with the kids. That was where Arturo Noriega, the at-risk intervention supervisor for the Mountain View Whisman School District, first encountered the artist's work.
"I thought, what a fantastic idea it would be to bring this to the youth of Mountain View," said Noriega, who works to set up activities for the after-school programs at Crittenden and Graham.
A large portion of the youth activities Noriega works on are sports-related. Sports are great, he said, but unfortunately they aren't for everyone. There are many kids who would benefit from the opportunity to engage in extracurricular activities, but who aren't interested in athletics. Decorating sugar skulls, he thought, would make a great, non-athletic activity.
Judging from the response of the children, Noriega was right. Crittenden student Francisco Rivera worked diligently, his eyes wide in a stare of concentration as he applied swirls of colored frosting and shiny sequins to his sugar skull.
He is familiar with Dia de los Muertos because his family has celebrated the holiday in the past. But, Francisco said, he was unaware of much of the history of the holiday, which can be traced back thousands of years to pre-Columbian rituals.
Francisco said he likes hearing stories about his grandfather — whom he barely knew — at his family's Dia de los Muertos celebrations.
He also said the sugar skull decorating activity was a bit more fun than what he usually does in his school's after school program.
Janaiya Davis, another Crittenden student, said she had heard of Dia de los Muertos before, but had never celebrated it. Like Francisco, Janaiya showed a great deal of interest in decorating her sugar skull.
"It's interesting," she said, reflecting on the concept of celebrating the dead in such a colorful way. It's "way different" than the way she remembers her family dealing with the death of a loved one, she said.
These are precisely the kinds of reactions Rob-O said he hoped he might see from the children. "Dia de los Muertos is actually a celebration of life," he said, explaining that he wanted the children to understand there are different ways of marking the passing of a loved one than the ways to which they may be accustomed. "It's a joyous way of remembering someone who has passed on," he said. "Not at all negative. It's just a real positive vibe."
Rob-O also emphasized that if the children have a passion for the arts, and if they work hard at it, there is a chance they could eventually make a living through art. After working with the medium for more than three years, he said he is making a living as an artist.
"It isn't easy. But you can survive on your passion if you stick with it," he said.