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Day of the Dead: ‘We celebrate that special day to honor deceased family members and friends’

day of the dead
Mónica Perez poses for a portrait during a Fall Festival in Kensington, on October 30, 2021. (Photo by Solmaira Valerio)

Editor’s note: This essay was translated from Spanish to English. 

In my Mexican culture, we’re always celebrating every birthday, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and any special day as a family. But on the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos), it’s different. We don’t celebrate Halloween or death like many people think. We celebrate that special day to honor the family members and friends who have passed away. But this is strange since honoring your family and loved ones is something that’s always done every day. I became more interested in the Day of the Dead tradition as I grew older because I began to understand it more and appreciate my culture’s traditions.

day of the dead
An altar for Mónica’s grandmothers in Mexico. (Credit: Mónica Perez)

The Day of the Dead was a very normal family tradition in my maternal grandmother’s house growing up. On those days, we would go to the cemetery and pray for the deceased. The altars had photographs of great-grandparents, uncles, cousins, and all the relatives and friends who had passed away. The altars were also always lit with candles and decorated mostly with marigold flowers and colored seeds. And we all brought food for the buffet. We always shared many different dishes and recipes: Mexican sweet bread called bread of the dead (pan de muerto), chocolate milk, and atoles made of either fruit or flour and corn. On another side, we would place all the favorite stews of the people who had passed away. We did all of this growing up, and we remembered our families and friends with love. In some towns, they support this tradition even more as an attraction for tourism; the altars that the towns create are made with different types of colored seeds that form different figures, including Catrina costumes with different face makeup. 

Below are some links where you can read and look at photos and videos of these traditions in my hometown of Michoacán, Mexico.

day of the dead
Mónica’s cousin preparing an altar in Mexico. (Credit: Mónica Perez)

Bread of the dead recipe

This is the recipe for bread of the dead (pan de muerto), a traditional recipe. It is easy to make with a few ingredients. You’ll love it.

Time: 45 min. approx.

Servings: 10 approx.

Ingredients:

3 1/2 cups of wheat flour

4 eggs

1 and 1/4 teaspoons of salt

1/2 tablespoon and 1/2 teaspoon of orange zest

3/4 cup of unsalted butter, at room temperature

3/4 cup of sugar

4 teaspoons of yeast

1 beaten egg, to glaze

1/4 cup of melted butter

Refined sugar for topping

Preparation: 

1. PLACE the flour, salt, and yeast in a bowl. Make a hole in the center and add the eggs. Knead until you form a homogeneous dough.

2. ADD butter and continue kneading the dough until fully mixed. Add the sugar and zest at the end once you can’t feel crystals in the dough, and you feel a flexible dough.

3. COVER the bowl with a damp cloth and let dough sit in a warm place until doubled in size.

4. MAKE the balls and place them on a greased tray; let it rest for 30 minutes. Don’t forget to save a little batter for the bones.

4. FORM the bones, place them on the fermented bread balls, glaze them with a beaten egg, and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 to 20 minutes depending on the size of the bread balls. They will be ready when they start to come off the tray.

5. BRUSH the bread of the dead with melted butter and cover with refined sugar.


Translator: Solmaira Valerioz / Editor: Zari Tarazona / Designer: Henry Savage

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