(Note: the following is adapted from an excerpt from our book, Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes, by this author and Adriana Almazan Lahl )

Pan de Muertos or Bread of the Dead: Why does it look like that, where and how to buy it

Photo by Adriana Almazan Lahl from Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Origins of Day of the Dead Bread

Pan de Muertos (Day of the Dead bread) is as fascinating in its folklore as it is in its variety of shape and style. Undoubtedly a European import (after all, it’s not cornbread de Muertos or tortilla de Muertos) the basic ingredients—butter, cane sugar, and wheat flour—were not known in Mesoamerica prior to the conquest. However, the animal forms (these breads often resemble turtles, rabbits, and crocodiles) are suggestive of Aztec traditions, in which anthropomorphic figures were formed from amaranth seed dough and eaten. Pan de Muertos dates back to the conquest of Mexico by the invading Spaniards.

Many studies have sought to define the symbolic meaning of the configuration of Pan deMuertoss. Some show that, in an effort to keep with indigenous roots, the four lines usually found atop the bread simulate the four cardinal points of the Aztec calendar, each of which, in turn, relates to one of their four principal deities. Another interpretation of the four lines, more in keeping with the teachings of the Catholic Church, is that they represent the bones of those who have passed away, and the center represents the heart or skull.

Buying Pan de Muertos

Looking to buy Pan de Muertos in San Francisco? They are a variation of pan dulce, and for that your destination is La Mexicana on 24th just off the corner of York (named Best Mexican Bakery in my Guide to the Mission’s Panaderias). If you’ve never done this, stepped into one of the various panaderias or Mexican bakeries in the Mission, go! Its fun… you grab a tray, a pair of tongs and you walk around the shop picking from trays of freshly baked pastries, some of which resemble turtles or snails (don’t even think about the price, they are all really cheap, from $.75 to maybe $2.50, if that much) and then you bring your tray to the cashier, just like the bakeries in Mexico. Don’t forget to get your cup of cafe con canela, traditional Mexican-style coffee brewed with cinnamon sticks.

Why do Mexicans seem to embrace skulls in their Day of the Dead celebrations?

Photo courtesy of Michele Simons

Their origin of skulls as a symbol associated with Day of the Dead is both interesting and controversial. While there is strong evidence of skulls displayed for ceremonial purposes in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, some anthropologists conclude that the appearance of skulls more likely stems from Colonial imagery, harkening to the skull as a symbol of death in Christianity. One school of thought is that the alfeñiques, the sugar skulls that adorn the altars on Day of the Dead, have their origins in the Tzompantli, a wooden rack used in several Mesoamerican civilizations for the public presentation of human skulls. Rather than a gory frightening or morbid custom, these displays coincided with the Aztec belief that death was the conclusion of one phase of this life, and that life extended past death to another level. Accordingly, it was common practice was to keep the skulls of the deceased and show them during those rituals that symbolized the end of a cycle (at the end of the calendar year, for example).

With the arrival of the Spaniards, the Catholic Church forbade the rituals using human skulls, but the Mexicas resisted the elimination of traditions so deeply held. Historians who trace the origins of sugar skulls to pre-Columbian times believe that the Aztecs were eventually persuaded to substitute sugar skulls for real ones. Other anthropologists argue that the icon of the skull and cross bones, as well as appearance of skeletons, was well documented in early European and Church history, and that the sugar skulls came across the seas with the Spanish.

What about all those painted faces?


photo by Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble


While I (and others) may have strong opinions about the popular trend of painting one’s face to resemble a Catrina, I recognize that many people don’t. In fact, a friend recently commented that her child wanted to do this for Halloween and that she didn’t feel she should say “no”. So, next best thing for those of you who still don’t see this as cultural appropriation is to learn about the Day of the Dead, and know the history of the Catrina:

During 1920s Catrinas, female skeletons fashionably attired with wide-brimmed hats, became popular as Mexico’s Renaissance created a vogue for all things Aztec. Satirizing the Mexican upper class of the Porfirio Díaz era (Mexican president 1876–1880 and 1884), with their preference for European rather than Indigenous culture and cuisine, Catrinas were just part of this movement led by artists like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, as Mexico’s artistic/intellectual community sought to reconnect with their indigenous roots. The first Catrina was created by graphic artist Jose Guadalupe Posadas between 1910 and   1913. The word catrín meant an elegant and well-dressed gentleman, usually accompanied by a lady with the same characteristics. Today, Catrinas are one of Mexico’s most widely sought collectibles.



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