Photographs by Nieves Montaño
Pan de muerto is a Mexican sweet bread and a key element in the observance of the Día de los Muertos, celebrated in Mexico, Latin America, and among people from those regions living in the United States and beyond. These small round breads—covered with white or colored sugar, sesame seeds or other sprinkles, or a simple egg wash sheen—are made to honor loved ones who have died. Along with flowers and special food and drinks the deceased one loved to eat, the breads are placed on home altars or grave sites as a gift of nourishment and remembrance. The living also earth and enjoy pan de muerto throughout the season.
In Nogales, Sonora, Don Lucio learned to make pan de muerto when he was fourteen working at a bakery in his hometown of Otumba, Mexico. Pan de muerto is a concoction of wheat flour, butter, eggs, yeast, sugar, cinnamon and milk (“If you’re making the good kind,” Lucio said). Lucio also adds a special ingredient—whiskey—which he says makes the dough fragrant and more flavorful. In some cases, people add beer or other types of liquor to give the bread a unique taste.
Lucio prepares and kneads the dough then lets it sit overnight before baking the next day. Before he covers the dough with an embroidered kitchen towel, he draws a cross with his fingers on top. A blessing on the masa to make sure it will be a good bread, he says.
Lucio rises early the next day to form the masa into small balls, then greases sheet pans with lard and an extra layer of flour. He places each ball on the pan and flattens it to form a small round loaf. He then kneads thin rolls of dough into “huesitos,” or bones, criss-cross two over the top of each bread, then covers it with an egg mixture, which gives it shine when cooked. He sprinkles each bread with sesame seeds then puts them in the oven to bake for twenty minutes.
Lucio’s wife Patricia will place some of the breads on an ofrenda, altar, in her home, which she will build after October 31. “On Noche de Brujas, the bad spirits could come and take what’s not meant for them,” she says. She sets up the altar on November 1, when she says the good spirits come to visit and to enjoy, among other things, Lucio’s pan de muerto.
Nieves Montaño is a photographer and educator. Growing up in Sonora, Mexico and now living in Tucson, she divides her time as a bilingual teacher at a local school and a freelance photographer. With her work, she hopes to build bridges to help people feel more connected to themselves and the world around them. You can find her on Instagram here @nievesmontano.