All month, residents and tourists have visited the panaderias in the Mission District to purchase the pan de muertos, a sweet bread traditionally made in the weeks leading up to the Day of the Dead or Día de Los Muertos. It’s as if the bread was a Mission tradition.

But, only 42 years ago, it was not common fare.

“We don’t know what that is,” a baker at La Victoria on 24th Street told Yolanda Garfias Woo, an artist, teacher, and ethnographer when she asked to buy some in 1975.

“I looked at them and I thought, ‘this can’t be true.’”

Photo by Marian Carrasquero

The story of pan de muertos in the Mission District is a reminder that it was Garfias Woo and other artists like René Yañez and Ralph Maradiaga who nurtured, improvised and developed what has become a citywide celebration, one that began slowly and then grew across cultures in the 1980s in communities suffering from gang violence, AIDS and the Central American wars, according to Cary Cordova’s book, The Heart of the Mission, Latino Art and Politics in San Francisco.

When she thinks back on it, Garfias Woo said the popularization of the holiday was a serendipitous combination of her curiosity about and fixation on the Mexican holiday with the social need for a tradition that united Chicanos and also gave other people a space to mourn positively in the midst of a lot of uncertainty.

As a child, Garfias was amused by her father’s Mexican ethnicity and always had a curiosity for learning more about it, she said. After his death in the late 1950s, Garfias Woo began celebrating Dia De Los Muertos. Later, while teaching in San Francisco’s public schools and seeing her students confront the violence and shootings in their neighborhoods, Garfias Woo again got into Dia de los Muertos.

Yañez and other artists did as well. The exhibits and celebrations mounted and in 1975, the de Young Museum invited Garfias Woo to put up an altar.

As she gathered the materials, she said, she discovered she was missing one important element: the pan de muerto.

“I never made the pan myself from scratch,” she said.

Neither, it turned out, had the Mexican bakers or her other Mexican friends here.

Garfias Woo said that, back then, a lot of Mexicans here hid their roots, teaching their children to speak English rather than Spanish.

“Nobody wanted to be Mexican; they had suffered a lot” she said. If she asked about the bread, perhaps they knew how to make it, but “they would pretend they wouldn’t know.”

Her aunt, tia Dela, lived in Mexico and taught her most of the traditions she knew. It was from her that Garfias Woo learned about pan de muerto in Mexico.

Back in San Francisco, she said, she needed the assistance of local bakers because she had to bake forms that were large and impressive. Also, the bakers knew how to make the basic dough, which was the same as the dough for pan dulce.

The pan de muerto is usually shaped like a bun and is often decorated with bone-shaped pieces that represent the deceased, but each region in México has different techniques and forms. It is usually one of the main offerings on the Dia de los Muertos altars, and it is sold in different sizes and with different decorations, such as sugar or sprinkles.

What bakers needed from her were the shapes, so Woo made drawings of how the bread should look and took them with her to La Victoria.

“I was there at five in the morning and we made the bread,” she said.

They baked big figures for the exhibition, and then she got the bakers to make smaller versions, or panecitos muertos, for sale.

“I will get teachers to come buy them for their students,” she promised.

On a grant to encourage multiculturalism, Garfias gave workshops on Dia De Los Muertos throughout the city, and at each, she would tell the teachers to go to La Victoria to get the bread for their students. It was a win-win situation.

Nowadays, she said, no one at La Victoria remembers the history of the bread that they sell.

One baker at the panaderia, Don Raul Vasquez, has been at the bakery for 20 years, and said that it was a man who taught him how to make the pan de muerto.

“It was a man, who actually died a few years ago,” he said.

Garfias Woo doesn’t seem to mind. “The last time I went in there, they were like, ‘Yeah, we started the whole thing; I don’t know who you are,’ but I’m OK with that — because it caught on.”

Pan de muertos. Photo by Marian Carrasquero.