No one knows exactly when the sugar skull was invented. It may be the most recognizable symbol of Dia de los Muertos today, but the brightly decorated, edible molds likely date to a time before the colonization of the Americas. Many of Central America’s indigenous populations kept human skulls and bones to use in celebrations honoring the life and death cycles. At some point, sugar bones became a common offering, perhaps symbolizing the sweetness of life in the shape of death. Things changed when the Conquistadors arrived, however. For those who survived the bloody invasion, the Catholic Church moved the celebrations from the ninth month of the Aztec calendar to All Saints Day and All Souls Day on Nov. 1 and 2. Sugar skulls will be easy to find in the coming days at the Atlanta History Center and the Rialto Center for the Arts, where Eugene Rodriguez’s Los Cenzontles performs this week.
About 20 years ago, Rodriguez was an artist in residence at the California Arts Council, working on a traditional Mexican music and dance project. The trouble was, he couldn’t find enough musicians to play with him. “I sought out people who knew the traditions,” he says. “It was similar to the ’50s and ’60s, when young people started searching for blues and folk music.” Five years later, he’d incorporated Los Cenzontles Mexican Arts Center with the mission to teach students to play and continue the traditions. Today, the program’s bigger than ever, sponsoring trips to rural Mexico, inviting Mexican artists to residencies in the Bay Area and producing CDs.
He says he’s inspired by the music of the Purépecha, an indigenous people from northwest Mexico who sing Pirekuas, a form of love song. “The traditional mariachi — before the trumpets and flashy outfits — down home folk music” derives in part from this culture, as well. Rodriguez stresses that he isn’t interested in stuffy, museum-like re-creations, saying, “For us, the idea of researching these traditional songs is to find our own connections to them, not to just replicate them. We’re looking to bring it alive. We put our own feeling into it.” The touring group Los Cenzontles, or the Mockingbirds, is comprised entirely of musicians who work at the center, and almost all of them have come up through the program. Los Cenzontles performs Sat., Oct. 31, at the Rialto Center.
In collaboration with Instituto de Mexico, the Atlanta History Center's eighth annual Dia de Muertos celebration usually draws a crowd of around 2,500 people, though this year has added significance. Mundo Hispánico, Atlanta’s Spanish-language newspaper, also celebrates its 30th anniversary with a photography exhibit. Lino Dominguez, former publisher and owner of Mundo Hispánico, says, “I went through every issue of the paper looking for shots that showed an idea of community.”
Working together with Atlanta History Center curator and Vice President of Collections and Exhibitions Susan Neill, they culled from thousands of photographs and hundreds of issues to create an exhibit depicting not only the history of the newspaper but also the last 30 years of Atlanta’s Hispanic community. Dominguez recalls a long history of events covered by the newspaper, from the Cedartown murders and racial tension from the Ku Klux Klan in the ’80s to the proud, defiant march in 2006, which gathered more than 50,000 people asking for undocumented workers rights. Through the Lens of Mundo Hispanico: Georgia's Hispanic Community is the first bilingual exhibit the Atlanta History Center has produced. Since collaborating on the project, Mundo Hispánico has decided to place their archive with the center.
“The Day of the Dead is about families honoring their ancestors,” says Neill. Both the Rialto Center and Atlanta History Center will be decorated with altars, full of food and offerings for the passed.