The story behind the skulls: Hollywood takes a spiritual history mainstream

Hispanic Heritage Month

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — You’ve seen them around. You may even have a shirt. They’re pretty sweet.

You’ve probably heard of sugar skulls. They’ve got a real importance in Hispanic, Latino and Indigenous culture.

They seem to be popping up on clothes and in stores across America. Turns out, there’s a reason.

Do you really know the story behind the skulls?

“People think that it’s a Catholic tradition, but actually the Catholic tradition in other countries do not celebrate the same way the dead,” Jacquie Padilla, who is from Mexico City, said.

She says skulls are a Hispanic tradition.

If you ask Padilla she is happy to share her Mexican heritage. Historically, she said, real human skulls were set out at an altar to honor the dead. When the Spanish conquered Mexico in the 1500s, though, Catholic traditions were mixed with Aztec and Mayan cultures — and eventually, real skulls changed to sugar skulls.

“If you see other places the Catholic tradition don’t use skulls for everything. It’s a kind of creepy or weird, but in Mexico it’s funny, normal, and also celebrating the dead,” she explained.

Celebrating the dead happens each year on Dia De Los Muertos. It’s November 2. A person’s favorite food is left by an altar as well as a candle to guide the spirits home along a path of marigold flowers. It’s all surround by brightly painted, inviting, sugar skulls.

Even if you’re not Hispanic this may still sound familiar, especially if you’ve seen the movie “Coco.” Some say it made sugar skulls mainstream.

“The times that I have returned to Mexico after the ‘Coco’ movie, you can find in some like departmental stores. They sell fancy candies, like the skulls and it’s super weird because otherwise you cannot find it but until November,” Padilla said.

Padilla said before “Coco” came out in 2017 sugar skulls were a seasonal item like ornaments sold only at Christmas time. Now, “You can find them everywhere, literally everywhere,” she said.

Imagine Christmas décor year round. The skulls can be found in obvious spots like on merchandise at Mexican restaurant SoKno Tacos, in Knoxville, but also at shops all across America.

“I think it’s good. I don’t judge. I think that it’s just different opportunities, so if you don’t have the opportunity to learn another culture or travel to another country, it’s not that you are ignorant it’s like you just don’t know,” Padilla explained.

That’s the best part of sugar skull populatiry for her. The next time you see them around you’ll know.
“I like the fact that some movies are like honoring the Mexican culture because I’m very proud of being Mexican,” she said.

For Padilla, that’s pretty sweet.

She also said during all her years growing up in Mexico City, she never saw Dia De Los Muertos parades. After a James Bond movie shows a big parade for the holiday in 2016, the city began sponsoring a similar event. Now, she said, parades happen every year because of the movie.

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