Friday, November 1, 2013

All Saints Day

Today is All Saints Day, the second of three holidays celebrated by Catholics and known in Mexico and Mexican immigrant communities as Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

Though skulls and skeletons are symbols of the holiday, it's not gruesome or scary at all, but rather a time for families to gather and remember their lost loved ones, to honor them at special altars created for the day, and to tend and decorate the graves of the dead.

Each year if I can, I like to go to a tiny Oaxacan bakery called Antequera Panaderia y Pasteleria on Santa Monica's Ocean Park Boulevard, and buy a loaf of pan de muerte, a sweet yeast-raised bread made for Dia de Los Muertos celebrations.

There are many bakeries in Los Angeles that make pan de muerte, but I think the one made here is particularly unique and charming. The golden brown crust of the loaf is decorated with arabesques and spirals of piped white icing and colored sprinkles. A little wax saint's head is embedded in the end, as if the saint herself were baked into the loaf.

Visiting this shop on a holiday like Dia de Los Muertos is a magical yet humbling experience for someone like me who doesn't really know the culture as well as I should, and who doesn't speak Spanish. The tiny room is crowded with families picking up their pre-ordered baked goods, or peering into the glass case at pastries.

The interior of the shop is decorated all over with pictures of saints and crosses, calendars with rustic pastoral scenes, posters for concerts and sports, garlands of Halloween decorations, flowers, candles and bundles of cinnamon sticks; and the pretty pierced tissue-paper known as papel picados.

Even the basic Spanish I know always evaporates from my brain when I step up to the counter, and the short, middle-aged aproned lady behind the counter doesn't speak English. I pointed and smiled until another customer kindly translated for me.

The senora disappeared into the back room, where you could see unadorned racks of bread waiting for icing; moments later she returned, deftly ripping a piece of white butcher paper from a roll nearby. She laid my loaf down on top of it, and smiled at me.

According to Antequera's price list, my loaf is a chico, which is $10. You can get smaller loaves, and you can also get a huge grande like the one displayed in the window altar, along with fruits, candles, and sprays of marigold flowers, which are traditional for the holiday.

Even if you don't celebrate Day of the Dead, this is a good weekend to take a moment and remember those who are gone with such beautiful symbols of abundance, sustenance, and mortality.

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