There is one central Mexican Day of the Dead custom that has been successfully transplanted up here on the border. This is the making, selling, and consuming of pan de muerto, or day of the dead bread. You can find it in many of Tucson’s Mexican bakeries, beginning about a week before November 2.
It is a rich egg bread, often formed into round loaves with molded bone shapes, or sometimes a molded dove, on top. Alternatively, the loaves can be in human form, with or without molded bones. It all depends on the baker, and of course each bakery wants its breads to be distinctive.
In the 1990s there was one Tucson baker who had learned his skills in Guadalajara. He made large, flattish skull-shaped loaves with molded details, and reddish jam in the eye sockets. These dramatic breads were unique to my experience. A bakery-hopping expedition just now can be quite rewarding. Fattening, too!
Pan de muerto seems to be a fairly recent arrival here on the border. In October and November of 1984, I spent a couple of weeks documenting the traditional arts associated with death in Ambos Nogales. One man I interviewed was a baker who had moved from Mexico City to Nogales, Sonora, in the 1960s. In his first year in his new location, he did as he always had, and made pan de muerto. He was startled when Nogalenses asked him what those odd loaves were. By the time of my visit some twenty years later, he told me that the bread sold quite well.
What is done with this bread? It seems to be eaten by both the living and the dead. Some people put it on the altars, graves, or tables where many believe that their dead will visit on their day. And I suspect that some folks simply buy it and eat it themselves.
Speaking of leaving food for the dead on All Souls’ Day, I heard the following story many years ago:
An O’odham and a Mexican were walking along, and the Mexican was teasing his companion about the O’odham custom of leaving food for the dead on All Souls’ Day. “Come on,” he said, “You don’t really believe that your dead people come and eat that food? Of course it’s gone next morning, but it’s the dogs or the coyotes or the javelinas that eat it!” He kept on like this for a time, while the O’odham just walked along in silence. After a while, the latter said “The way I look at is this: about the time that your dead people come and smell those flowers, our dead people come and eat the food!”