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Charlotte baker resurrects Mexico’s bread of the dead, ahead of Día de los Muertos

Charlotte baker Norma Zuñiga has been getting ready for the holiday rush — specifically Día de los Muertos, Mexico’s Day of the Dead, which starts Wednesday.

She’s been busy in the kitchen, with the help of her mother Matilde Jimenez and brother Rodolfo Zuñiga, to meet the Charlotte-area demand for one of the day’s traditional altar offerings: el pan de muerto or the bread of the dead.

Zuñiga started her baking business, Dulce Dreams, about two years ago, in part to satisfy her sweet tooth for conchas, Mexican sweet bread. (She even has a concha tattooed on her forearm.) But at markets, many of her customers started asking about pan de muerto. They said it was hard to find in the area, and they wanted it for their Day of the Dead offerings to honor their lost loved ones.

“I think it's just really nice that people still celebrate it, because it's like they're still remembering their families,” she said. “They're not dead in a way. They're still celebrating their life and the afterlife.”

Zuñiga makes her pan de muerto dough with a touch of orange flavor, using orange blossom water and orange zest. Each is adorned with two hand-rolled strips, representing bones, and a ball on top that represents a skull. She brushes the rolls with butter and adorns them with sugar. Some she tops with a corn husk ash, called totomoxtle, and sugar mixture.

She studied biology at Johnson C. Smith University, and worked for five years as a lab technician. But she didn’t like the work. Her dream as a child, watching cooking shows at home, was to open her own bakery.

Zuñiga is a DACA holder, meaning she was brought to the United States as a child and now has temporary protection from deportation. But she doesn’t have a pathway to establish permanent residency. She says, as a Latina business owner, she wants to show undocumented girls that they, too, can follow their dreams, regardless of immigration status.

“I knew it was gonna be really hard opening a bakery. So I never actually went for it. I never had a role model or someone who inspired me. Like a Latina that had her own bakery,” she said. “Then I just started doing research on how I can open up my own business. I started looking up stuff, and I saw that a lot of people use ghost kitchens like shared spaces, and then they do pop-up markets.”

She recently organized a market herself for Hispanic Heritage Month at Super Abari Game Bar. She wanted to create a space for Latino business owners to sell their goods.

“It was really successful. I was so worried that nobody was going to show up, but it was amazing. Most of the vendors sold out. I sold out of my bread in one and a half hours, which was a record time for us.”

Now she’s working to organize other markets for Latino businesses during the holiday season. She posts updates of when and where Dulce Dreams pop-up markets will be available on the company’s Instagram page.

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Kayla Young is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race, equity, and immigration for WFAE and La Noticia, an independent Spanish-language news organization based in Charlotte. Major support for WFAE's Race & Equity Team comes from Novant Health and Wells Fargo.