Rodolfo Villalpando (Mexican sweets) and Maria Nuño (Rompope)

This husband and wife team lives in Lenoir City, Tennessee. They opened their home and kitchen to show their delicious Mexican sugary crafts. Now they hope to teach their daughters and grandchild to carry on their family tradition.

Rodolfo Villalpando Orozco has the “sweetest” memories of childhood. He and his wife Maria Esperanza Nuño are from Guanajuato, Mexico. Ever since he can remember, his family members were dulceros (candy makers).38 His father, Rodolfo Villalpando Sr., learned the craft of candy-making from Rodolfo’s grandmother. She used to make and sell calaveritas de azucar (sugar skulls)39 and garrapiñados (caramel coated peanuts) in Mexico City. She taught her son how to make her sweet confections, and “that was his occupation, literally, for life”, Rodolfo says. His specialties included paleta de tamarindo (tamarindo sweet), gomitas (gum drops), soft caramels and hard candy.

Rodolfo’s fondest childhood memory is Day of the Dead in Mexico. The tradition that is “most rooted” in him was the confection of sugar skulls. “This is just the opposite to an industrial type of job. Sugar skulls are handmade, it is a craft. Making them gives me a lot of satisfaction”, Rodolfo explains. He doesn’t know a lot of people who can make them. He proudly points out that people comment on the beauty of his work, everyone seems to like it, and he does not want this tradition to die. “Sugar runs in our blood,” Rodolfo said.

He shows different types of sweets the family prepares and sells out of their kitchen. Gomitas are made from all-natural ingredients. Paletas are different flavored pastes sold by the spoonful. He talks while he is busy filling out little cups of his tangy tamarindo concoction. “You place three tamarindos per cup and basically it is a boiled sugar, glucose, and water mixture. Later acid and salt are added, and chiles if you please. That is all.”

He recalls going with his family, as a child, to La Feria del Alfeñique (alfeñique = “sugar flavored paste”) in Guanajuato, where the family sold their sugar candy. One year he entered a contest and was the second winner in sugar skull crafting. His winning entry was a calavera porfiriana, a name he gave his creation in honor of Porfirio Díaz (who sported a thick white moustache)40 because of the big confectioner’s sugar white moustache that graced his skull.

Although traditional sugar skull making is more common in his native Guanajuato, he estimates that not more than one hundred people actually make them the old traditional way. This activity usually involves participation of the entire family.

Sugar skulls production greatly differs from making alfeñiques.41 “Those are made by kneading, while sugar skulls are made by hollowing,” Rodolfo said. First the perfect proportion of sugar and water is boiled and poured onto molds. Once set, the sugar skull is carefully hollowed out. Decorations also mark the difference. The largest skulls he makes are almost 6 or 7 inches wide. With the hollowed-out sugar from the large skull, he can make a medium size skull. And with the sugar taken out of that one, he then makes mini-skulls that are about 2-inches wide which are hugely popular with kids.

The larger skulls are sold with elaborate and colorful fine sugar piping decorations, often displaying the name of a deceased loved family member or friend. Rodolfo gets many orders close to the November 2, when families make altares in honor of their dead. Little skulls are sold “plain” (they make white, chocolate, and pink sugar skulls) and they are fun for children to decorate… and later eat!

When asked what he would need to take his craft to “the next level” he said that “an organization or private investor would be needed to provide financial support and proper tools. Transportation and packing, as well.” He feels some of his products could be industrially manufactured, like gummy candy or suckers. Their needs are financial and the first one would be to find a better production place. Support from organizations such as HoLa is also important. “The HoLa Festival gave us an opportunity to sell [sugar skulls and sweets] and they sold really well. We look forward to doing it again!”

Although Rodolfo moved to US about twelve years ago, due to financial reasons, his wife Maria Esperanza joined him only seven years ago. Maria Esperanza mentions she learned to cook by watching her mother. She enjoyed cooking and preparing desserts, such as gelatins and cakes. Still today Maria Esperanza prepares some of the family recipes, but not all. She is proud of rompope, in particular, and she will share a family recipe with us.

Rompope is a milk and egg –based punch that it is traditionally prepared in Mexican villages. The original recipe is said to have originated at convents, where nuns would make it and sell the drink to raise funds. There are different recipes and there are rompopes of different flavors. It is a festive beverage consumed during holidays and family celebrations.

Ingredients for Maria’s rompope include: milk, eggs, almonds, alcohol, sugar, cinnamon, lemon peel, and that is it! Instructions: Mix sugar and cinnamon in milk and bring to a boil, stirring for 15 minutes. Let milk cool down and later add egg and ground almond. Rompope tastes better the day after it is cooked!

Although she has personally not been involved in events, she definitely would like to teach others how to prepare traditional Mexican recipes.

When asked about her cooking skill, she humbly says: “I’m just a housewife, and I help my husband in making and packing his sweets”. But it is obvious that she really knows her way around in the kitchen.

“I liked to do all that. I have seen it [done] since my grandmother [times], she liked to make desserts, gelatin, all that, and I really enjoyed it. I had an interest in it.” And having tasted Maria Esperanza’s rompope, we are really glad she was interested in cooking!


Photo 87: Sugar skulls for sale at HoLa Festival 2011. Photo by Dana Everts-Boehm.


Photo 88: Rodolfo Villalpando packages dulce de tamarindo. Photo by Rafael Casco.


Photo 89: Rodolfo Villalpando shows an assortment of homemade Mexican sweets and rompope drink. Photo by Rafael Casco.

38 Verti, Sebastian. Tradiciones Mexicanas; La Clavena, special edition. Mexico: Editorial Diana, 1992

40 Porfirio Díaz.



    [Previous Page ]    [Next Page ] 

   [ back to Tennessee Arts Commission site ]