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The Sweetest Art




By Karla Ortiz

By the end of October, the stalls selling alfeñiques (sugar paste figurines) and skull-shaped chocolates begin to appear. This is the time of year when children come with the money they have collected throughout the month in order to buy their favorite sweet figures.

It is a Mexican tradition to put alfeñiques on the altars offered to deceased loved ones. Foreigners are familiar with the “sugar skull” alfeñique figures, but the designs can actually be of almost anything. Nowadays, in addition to the traditional sweets such as coffins, skulls, lambs, and hens, we can also see some more modern novelties such as figures in the form of toys, emojis, and cartoon characters. Some represent their loved one on their altar with alfeñiques made to look like some food or epicurean pleasure their loved one would have enjoyed in life, like a bottle of Coca-Cola, some cigars, or a delicious mole.

In San Miguel de Allende, you can currently find stalls selling alfeñiques at Plaza de la Soledad and Plaza de los Insurgentes.

Where the tradition comes from

The alfeñique is of Arab origin. The Spaniards adopted this custom, and sometime later, with the Conquest, it reached all of Latin America. To bring the custom more joy and color, we Mexicans modified alfeñiques’ appearance, decorating them with things like colored pastes, and chocolate.

Although it’s not a 100-percent-Mexican tradition, our traditions have embraced the alfeñiques, making them an essential part of offerings.

All alfeñiques are handcrafted by the person who sells them. Unlike other sweets that are bought already made, they have the clear feel of being prepared in the home of a family dedicated to this custom. Some artisans make them as a hobby, for the simple fact of keeping the tradition alive, while others do it as a profession.

A family business

There are many people who, year after year, begin to prepare the sweet paste to prepare the best figurines they can. For example, there is Estrella Licea Ramírez, 38 years old, from Atotonilco, who is this year selling her alfeñiques in Plaza de los Insurgentes on Calzada Guadalupe. She started creating her own figurines at the age of 10, not surprising considering her family has been involved in the business for generations, since her great-grandmothers time.

They make traditional alfeñiques, such as coffins, skulls, mole plates, chickens, and even cartoon characters that children often wear.

Estrella told Atención San Miguel that each alfeñique has a drying process in stages. Depending on the difficulty of the figurine and the number of stages of drying, some figurines can take a long time to make. That is why they begin the production process of these figurines six months in advance. “One of the alfeñiques that takes them the longest is a large lamb that takes several stages of drying: first the body is made with two molds, dried, and then glued. Afterwards, the legs, neck, and head are added, each one taking six hours to dry. Then the decorations, such as roses, bows, and wool, are added. For smaller and more detailed figures, it takes less time to dry but longer to make the details more precise so that the figure looks much more beautiful,” Ramírez said.

Generally the family already has well predicted the number of figures they will need each year. However, if there is any surplus, they always donate their skulls to community schools.

There are two types of alfeñiques: those that are very hard and those that are softer. For the latter, only use glass sugar, lemon and artificial colorants. For the harder figures, the family uses sugar glass, unflavored gelatine, egg whites, and lemon.

One type of figures they are making this year are pink, purple, and blue skulls, which are decorated with yellow, green, blue, purple and white paste with some touches of glitter. Extremely colorful, and a touch untraditional, they are inspired by the art and color of the Pixar movie Coco.

Estrella invites people to visit each and every one of the stalls of her colleagues, but also invites you to see her new creations.


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