To feed the dead, you first need pan de muerto


HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Over the past week, Elizabeth Hernández has turned La Patrona Bakery into a frenetic pan de muerto operation, making dozens of round loaves topped with bony fingers.

This bread of the dead — similar in texture to challah and sprinkled with sugar or sesame seeds — is a staple of the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. The celebration on Nov. 1-2 aims to reunite the souls of the dead with the living.

“It’s a symbol of their death, but at the same time, life,” Hernández said in Spanish of the bakery’s bread, which uses a recipe from Mexico City.

People eat the bread with their families, but it is also an essential offering on home altars, or ofrendas. The sweet-smelling bread sits alongside photos of the dead, and an array of their favorite foods and drinks, attracting and nourishing the souls who visit, said Michelle Téllez, a professor of Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona.

By the time the holiday is over, the food usually doesn’t have any smell or flavor because the dead have presumably eaten it, said Antonieta Mercado, a professor at the University of San Diego who has written about the history and significance of Día de los Muertos.

Beyond the Mexican diaspora, the holiday has found broader appeal in popular culture. The popularity of films like the 2017 Disney Pixar feature “Coco,” which is set during Día de los Muertos, underscores the significance of the holiday and gets people to ask questions about the celebration, Mercado said, but it also comes with the risk that the cultural meaning may be lost.

While scholars generally agree that it originated with Mexico’s Indigenous people, they debate how the living initially memorialized the dead. Some scholars, like Téllez, believe it was a celebration tied to the changing seasons. Others, like Mercado, associate it with the growing cycle of corn, when people asked the souls of the dead and the forces of nature to bring a good harvest.

After Spaniards began to convert Indigenous people to Christianity, the Indigenous celebration absorbed traditions from the Catholic All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2).

“It’s beautiful because you honor your ancestors,” Mercado said. “For a lot of Latinx and Indigenous communities, their ancestors are a part of the community. They never leave, they just translate to another plane.”

In 16th-century Mexico, Spaniards celebrated All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day with cemetery vigils, laying out flowers, candles and bread, said Stanley Brandes, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has researched Día de los Muertos. Pan de muerto owes its sweetness to the sugar brought to Mexico by the Spanish.

There are dozens of different types of pan de muerto, with bakers offering their own interpretations, based on where they live and where they’re from.

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