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La Calavera honors the dead

Decatur's traditional Mexican bakery celebrates Dia de los Muertos with sugar skulls, pan de muerto and mariachi music

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Photo credit: Dale Ralston
VIVA CALACA: Decatur's La Calavera Bakery celebrates Dia de los Muertos with a traditional spread of sugar skulls, candles and an altar honoring the departed.

When husband and wife team Eric Arillo and Dale Ralston first opened their bakery, La Calavera, back in 2012, they hoped to bring a traditional taste of Mexico to Decatur. And come Nov. 1, that means celebrating Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. "It's a freestanding tradition that not only lived on but has come back to start taking over culture here in this country," Arillo says. "In the American pantheon you only have a one-sided face of death, whereas in most cultures, you see both sides."

Historically, the holiday combines the pre-Hispanic, indigenous traditions of Central and South America with All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, brought by Catholic Europeans to Mexico. The resulting message is simple: While sadness and grief are natural reactions to death, those who have passed should be remembered with joy.

"Dia de los Muertos not like anything you see in the United States," says Arillo. "It's a totally different approach to how people feel about death. It's a lot more sentimental, loving and warm than anything we have here."

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DEARLY DEPARTED: Photos of the deceased, both humans and pets, are honored annually on La Calavera's Dia de los Muertos altar, decorated with sugar skulls.
| Dale Ralston


La Calavera remembers those who have passed on with a traditional Dia de los Muertos celebration of its own. The bakery itself was named after calaveras de azucar, the sugar skulls that Mexicans traditionally craft each year to celebrate the dead. The edible varieties are made out of chocolate, sesame seeds or puffed grains, often elaborately decorated with icing. Sometimes colorful bits of foil, beads and feathers are added. "Most traditional ones aren't even eaten," says Ralston. "They are made out of sugar, but they are just to look at. You can have the name of a loved one written on the forehead." She smiles. "They will last you forever if you don't get them wet.'

Rolls of bread known as pan de muerto (Mexican bread of the dead) are another holiday tradition that the bakery cooks up. Small, round and sweet, the rolls are similar to a brioche in texture but with a slight citrus flavor. They're decorated with little bone-shaped details on top.

Each year, La Calavera Bakery sets up an altar and invites people to bring in pictures of those who have passed for a collective tribute. The bakery typically receives over a dozen photographs, featuring everyone from beloved family pets to deceased husbands. "It creates a sense of community, learning other people's stories," Arillo says. He feels that people in America often have an unhealthy relationship with death this kind of remembrance can come as a welcome catharsis. "People here cope with death in a very alien way. You only talk about it after it happens and you only talk about it in a negative way. Whereas in Mexico, you address it before people die. It's not taboo to talk about somebody's death."

Arillo and Ralston are native Atlantans but lived in Mexico, where Arillo's family is from, for four years. They taught English to pay the bills while Arillo attended culinary school at Universidad Euroam̩rica in Cuernavaca. Inspired by the country's no-frills style of baking, the budding chef decided to recreate his own Mexican bakery on East College Avenue in Decatur. Most of the space is dedicated to production, abutted by a narrow caf̩ decorated simply with posters of elementary Spanish words. Long shelves line the room, filled with loaves of bread made from sprouted whole wheat berries, sourdough made from natural sourdough starter and lots of pastries, treats and Mexican pastries known as pan dulce.

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BREAKING BREAD: Traditional Mexican pan de muerto is sweet and decorated with bone shapes.
| Dale Ralston

 
"Bread is still part of the culture in Mexico, whereas here it's an afterthought," Arillo says. "The only reason you would do artisan stuff is for an existential reason. You aren't doing it for the money. There is no money in it. But it's the art of it, and part of that art is the community that appreciates it."

This year's Dia de Los Muertos fiesta will be held on Sun., Oct. 29 at the bakery. It will include a mariachi band, face painting and lots to eat including the traditional sugar skulls and pan de muerto made by Arillo. All guests are encouraged to bring photos of loved ones who have died to place on the altar. La Calavera is careful to follow Mexican tradition. After Nov. 2, sugar skulls and pan de muerto will not be offered in the bakery until next year so get 'em while you can!

Dia de los Muertos is a deeply rooted Mexican tradition, yet in recent years certain elements have begun to resonate with the changing times. The patron saint Santa Muerte, also known as "La Flaquita" or the Skinny Lady, is growing in popularity not only as a guide to the afterlife, but as a defender of diversity.

"Mexican people who have come to live in the United States are reclaiming a more pre-Hispanic version of the Mexican version of death," says Arillo. "Santa Muerte is making a resurgence because a lot of people who are transgender, gay or queer look at it as a protective religion. It's a cool way that people are taking it and tying it into Catholic belief systems. Lots of people find it a way to find hope and faith when they are up against hard times."

Dia de los Muertos Fiesta. Free. 3:30-5 p.m. Sun., Oct. 29. La Calavera Bakery. 747 E. College Ave. Ste. C, Decatur. 404-998-8389. www.lacalaverabakery.wordpress.com. More info here.

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