The woman’s hands worked with a learned precision, flattening a rounded slab of dough with her fingertips into the form of a person.
She cut slits around the bottom of the figure — a dress. Two slits across the upper sides of the body became arms, which she delicately folded across each other.
Guadalupe Herrera, 49, started baking pan de muerto — bread of the dead — as a 9-year-old in her hometown of Putla Villa de Guerrero in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. The entire village had just three brick ovens, and she remembers each family planning days in advance to prepare the food for her favorite holiday: Day of the Dead.
“I missed all of that,” she said in Spanish. “I never thought I’d be here making this bread.”
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Observed every Nov. 2, Day of the Dead is based on the belief that the souls of the deceased visit their families once a year. Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations believed those souls would experience eternal despair if their memory was forgotten.
It survived major changes in Latin America’s history, evolving through the Spanish conquest and mass conversion to Catholicism. Spaniards changed the dates of the rituals to correspond with two Christian holidays: All Saints Day on Nov. 1 and All Souls Day on Nov. 2. Believers say the souls of dead children return Oct, 31, the souls of adults on Nov. 1 and all souls together on Nov. 2.
Rather than being a period of mourning, Meso-Americans treated death as an extension of life worth memorializing. On Day of the Dead, families honor their ancestors by creating altars that display photos, favorite foods and possessions. The altars symbolize the gate to heaven and are decorated with candles and marigolds, which are said to draw the person’s soul back for the festivities. They burn incense to purify the area surrounding each altar as a sacred place.
Inside a small commercial kitchen Thursday at Iglesia Santa Ines, a church in Madera, Herrera led five women in baking around 200 breads for Saturday’s Day of the Dead celebration. They are part of a mixed group of indigenous women, including Mixtecos, Zapotecos and Triquis. Oaxaca, their home region, has 16 indigenous groups.
Herrera had been awake since 4 a.m. preparing the dough. The day was overcast, but inside the small chapel it was hot and humid with the sweet smell of baking bread.
Once shaped, the women added details to the dough people, like buttons or bows, then sprinkled sesame seeds on top. A butter glaze finished them off.
The bread symbolizes each person who has passed on. Herrera set aside 10 large slabs of dough to represent the grandparents of the 10 women most involved in their group. The rest will be sold along with Oaxacan meals of mole, tamales, posole and other traditional foods.
For Herrera, Day of the Dead is about connecting with her family.
“My father died here,” she said in Spanish. “For me, it’s as if I’m saying, ‘I’m here, Dad. I’ll put (on the altar) everything you like.’ If I didn’t do this, I would feel really sad. This is part of our culture. It is part of us.”
Duties for Madera’s Day of the Dead celebration were divided along traditional gender roles: Women baking and cooking; men building and decorating the community altar.
For the individual family, finding decorations needed for the holiday has gotten easier in Madera. Many people, including Javier Lopez, plant marigolds. Their strong scent is said to attract the souls of the dead.
Lopez, 45, has been planting the flowers for 12 years, most recently at his home near Highway 99. He sells them in large bundles for $20. It’s a family affair, with his four children helping him cut, bundle and deliver the flowers to Day of the Dead believers in town.
The tradition of growing marigolds was passed from Lopez’s grandfather to his father, then him. Now his 5-square-yard garden is overgrown with rows of pungent orange varieties of marigolds.
“I do this so (the tradition) won’t stop,” he said in Spanish. “Even from afar, but we are here remembering our customs. I have to show my son what the culture is like over there in Oaxaca.”
It doesn’t appear the tradition is in jeopardy. Colorful Day of the Dead sugar skull and skeleton iconography, which symbolize death and rebirth, can now be seen across graffiti, low-rider and tattoo culture, said Frank Delgado, executive director of Arte Américas in Fresno.
Delgado said the holiday provides an entry point to educate the larger community about Mexican cultural traditions, especially as Day of the Dead becomes popularized, he said.
“We bring it back by always maintaining the importance of the indigenous roots of the celebration,” he said. “We arm people with information that is contextualized.”
Juanita Gomez, one of the women who baked bread on Thursday and a leader of Madera’s Mixteco community, said that context makes Day of the Dead especially significant for indigenous people.
“We begin learning our past to understand our future,” she said. “When we are on this side of the border, we hold onto those traditions and customs. It’s difficult because we don’t find all the ingredients, plus the graves are not here.”
But Gomez recalled an old saying: “Prepare the mole, put the glass of water, put a chair, incense and some yellow flowers, because soon enough they will come.”