This past dia de Muertos, you might have seen tiny sugar sculptures. Not only skulls and catrinas, but miniature food and fruits, called alfeñiques. The Word “alfeñique” comes from an almond paste (confectioner’s sugar with sweet almond oil, cooked and stretched into thin bars) was another product of colonization. According to history records, back in 1630, Francisco de la Rosa, a common citizen in the city of Toluca (near Mexico City) asked the royal Spanish crown for permission to make the candy his momma used to make back home. (I guess the crown was very strict about candy making way back then) he set up a shop, and his recipe is said to be shaped and shifted into what alfeñiques are today. In Toluca, there is a whole fair dedicated to these handicrafts, basically the stuff that sugar skulls are made of. The fair has been going on since 1989, to make the dia de Muertos tradition stronger.

There are many types of sugar bending handicrafts: from kneaded sugar dough, crystalized sugar syrup, moulded chocolate and pumpkin seed candy. Artisans from Oaxaca take pride in their ability to make crosses, skulls and flowers with honey in the middle. Artisans from Puebla, are famous for making coffins with almonds, peanuts or pumpkin seeds.

Nuns related the alfeñique to November and December, with the day of the dead celebration and the Christmas parties. Alfeñiques are real sugar sculptures, being more difficult to make than clay pottery.

Fun fact, alfeñique actually translates to “weakling”.

Each artisan has their own alfeñique recipe, but some of the ingredients are sugar, egg whites, lime juice and a special plant’s root called papaloquelite. Kneading and moulding is also a particular secret, but the coloring and painting is almost all the same, vegetable dye is added to the paste or brushed onto the pieces, which may have come from a clay mould or a wood shaper, depending on the artisan’s preferred technique. Some alfeñiques are as tiny as a quarter, so a lot of patience and a steady hands are required.

What’s the whole point of alfeñiques, you may wonder? Well, instead of cooking the deceased's favorite foods to place in an altar, alfeñiques may be used as they are made in as many shapes as you can think, from chicken mole to pears and apples, horses, sheep, etcetera. They are specially made for the “little angels” or kids who went to heaven since they are technically candy.

Mexican sugar skulls often have a name written on the forehead, this has two versions of the story of origin: one says that it’s the deceased name, so he or she knows you wish them well. The other says it should be your name, so you have a spot in heaven saved by whoever gave you the sugar skull. I believe whichever one I feel most comfortable with at the moment. Why do sugar skulls have all those squiggly lines and pops of color? Well, around the eyes, flowers are drawn, so your sight will only see beautiful things. On the forehead or top of the skull, another flower, for blessing. On the cheeks, what is now a modern pattern used to be more like traditional tribal designs, depending on the region, deer for good luck, plants for heath but I think honestly not everyone could fit these marvelous designs made in sugar and they just turned into colorful scribbles. Also, a big mustache must be drawn if the skull is a macho man!