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This year, I need my ancestors more than ever. I’m baking pan de muerto to call them forth.

(Laura Chase de Formigny for The Washington Post/food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

There is a Mexican bread that calls forth the souls of the dead. It’s shaped in a round, crisscrossed with bread “bones” and topped with a little round knob. Under a glittering, sugarcoated crust awaits a sweet, rich, pillowy-soft dream fragrant with star anise, orange zest and orange blossom water. Pan de muerto, bread of the dead, is the signature food of Día de los Muertos, a gift to the beloved departed, a meditation for the living.

Día de los Muertos is one of the great syncretic festivals of Latin America. For centuries, Indigenous people of Mesoamerica observed rituals that prepared the dead for their journey through the nine layers of the underworld to Mictlan Opochcalocan, where the soul meets its conclusion. In the 16th century, Spanish priests brought All Souls’ Day and All Saints’ Day, festivals honoring the dead with gravesite visits and gifts of wine, food and candles — rituals that predate Catholicism itself and that wove themselves into Aztec traditions.

In modern Mexico, in other Latin American countries and increasingly in Latinx communities in the United States, Día de los Muertos spans the first two days of November. Celebrants welcome back the dead with ofrendas, altars bestowed with the deceased loved ones’ favorite things, including food, and with marigolds and decorated calaveras, skulls cast from sugar. They burn copal, a fragrant resin, in homage of the wafting spirits.

On every ofrenda, from gigantic communal public art pieces to intimate household altars, you will find pan de muerto. There are dozens of versions of this bread originating from Mexico, but the most common is the round loaf shaped like a skull. The crossed bones reference the four directions of the Aztec calendar meeting together at the heart of the world, called the quincunx; that’s the knob.

Pan de muerto’s antecedent may be huesos de Santos, hollow, marzipan “bones” filled with a custard “marrow,” the treat traditionally laid on graves during All Souls’ Night in Spain. But pan de muerto is more similar to a spiral-shaped, sugarcoated Mallorcan bread called ensaïmada.

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In late October, I like to buy two loaves of pan de muerto from Fany Gerson of La Newyorkina in New York City. I place one on my ofrenda for my ancestors, and the second one I eat right away, since the bread’s luxurious softness doesn’t last more than a day or two. (I can’t help turning my ancestors’ loaf into bread pudding after the holiday.)

It was partly through Gerson’s bread that I learned about Día de los Muertos. I am Mexican on both sides of my family, but we did not grow up celebrating the holiday. The tradition had fallen away somewhere in past generations. Reclaiming this lost custom has been part of a larger effort to weave my heritage back into my everyday life.

I don’t have to do this alone. In cities with sizable Latinx populations, such as San Antonio, Los Angeles and Chicago, Día de los Muertos is usually celebrated as a community-wide event with music, dancing, processions, feasts and face painting. But not this year. In 2020, festivities will be muted, virtual, restricted to small family gatherings, if even that is possible.

The coronavirus pandemic has hit the Latinx community especially hard. In the United States, cases are 2.8 times higher and hospitalizations are 4.6 times higher compared with White, non-Latinx people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is attributable to a number of factors, from living in multigenerational homes to a greater likelihood of working in high-exposure essential service fields such as agriculture and meatpacking. To be painfully frank, we have more dead to honor this year; and yet the very gatherings that could help heal these losses pose too great a danger to our health.

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“This year is definitely going to be different,” says Patricia Bedoy, co-owner of the nearly 60-year-old Bedoy’s Bakery in San Antonio. The panaderia specializes in a traditional version of pan de muerto in the shape of a man or woman, decorated with colorful glazes. The weeks leading up to Día de los Muertos usually constitute the biggest season for bakeries such as Bedoy’s. In years past, they would have baked for mass school and community celebrations. With events canceled this year, it seems likely that family-owned businesses such as hers will take a hit. But worse, Bedoy says there have been “many, many” coronavirus-related deaths in her family.

Bedoy will still celebrate, albeit with a smaller family gathering. And if anything, the circumstances will underscore the meaning of the occasion. “That is going to bring us back to the meaning of that day,” she says. “It will have a deeper meaning, I think.”

Gerson agrees. “It’s almost like we question ourselves, like, is it okay to celebrate, to continue?” But one of La Newyorkina’s employees lost his mother to the virus, and Gerson worries that people are being denied the space and opportunity to mourn their loved ones the way they otherwise would. “So this year it feels almost, it feels …”; she pauses a moment. “I don’t even have the right adjective, to be perfectly honest. But to be able to have a moment where you do stop and celebrate among all this hardship feels especially symbolic.” The importance of the celebration feels heightened for her. “I think it’s going to be cathartic for a lot of people and especially in the communities, because it’s like a collective mourning of sorts.”

Gerson, who was raised Jewish, also did not grow up celebrating Día de los Muerto. But when she learned about the practices, they resonated with her, so she adopted them. Most of all, she loves pan de muerto, a bread whose ingredients — wheat and oranges brought by Spanish conquistadors, star anise from Asia — speak to the cultural blend of Mexican cuisine. “This is my favorite bread in the entire world,” she says. “There’s nothing better to me.” And while she could make it all year long, reserving it for this one season makes it all the more special. (Gerson has an excellent recipe in her cookbook, “My Sweet Mexico.”)

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For me, crafting this bread by hand is an embodied meditation. Through its very corporeal motions, I reflect on all the mythologies around the world of gods creating humans, of how they take substances from the earth and animate them, using nothing more than their bare hands. As I knead, I am aware of my breath, my body, and I am a god using the alchemy of seeds, water and motion to create life. When the dough rises, I admire my creation, filled as it is with spirits. I conquer death, if only for today.

And I connect with my ancestors, who help me see past this momentary crisis. I feel the generations before and the generations to come. I cross dimensions of time and space. My ancestors have seen war, genocide, bondage, heartbreak, and yet here I am, their descendant, working dough in their honor, for now, for those we lost this year, for those who will rise up in the future.

Velez is a writer and editor who lives in New York state.

Get the recipe: Pan de Muerto