For many Mexican households, el Día de los Reyes Magos is an annual tradition often celebrated while enjoying a colorful and sweet rosca alongside some cafecito or champurrado. The Jan. 6 holiday, also known as the Epiphany, commemorates the day three wise men, guided by a star to Bethlehem, first saw baby Jesus.
Long lines at local bakeries are commonplace on the days leading to the holiday, as hundreds of families in the neighborhood celebrate by cutting into their rosca de reyes. Small plastic figurines of the baby are baked into the rosca –representing how Jesus was hidden for protection from Roman King Herod’s troops– and whoever ends up with them must provide tamales for a feast on February 2, Dia de la Candelaría.
The first days in January are some of the busiest for Bernardo Cortez, owner and baker of La Sureñita in Boyle Heights. At the family-run bakery on Fourth St. near Evergreen, every rosca de reyes is made from scratch by hand with love. For the shop owners, every rosca sold brings back memories of their homeland and represents a family dream come true.
In search for a better life
Unable to afford school, a young Bernardo Cortez was encouraged by his father to learn how to bake bread in order to find work in his rural hometown of Santa Cruz Guerrero, Municipio de Quechultenango, in the Southern Mexican state of Guerrero.
After years of baking sweet bread and decorating cakes in Mexico, Cortez made the decision to move to the United States in 1999, in search of a better life for his wife and newborn son.
“I came here with very little, only the skills I had as a baker and blessings from my parents to change my new family’s story,” says the now 47-year-old Cortez. “One day when my first son was very little, he came up to me and told me that he dreamt of our family having our own bakery instead of having to work for other people, and I became determined to make it happen.”
Cortez worked long hours using the skills his father gave him to save up money and push for his own son’s dream to become a reality. Retail and store lot prices rose just as quickly as the family’s efforts to save, making the goal seem more and more unattainable until Cortez looked to local friends in Boyle Heights, his new home.
“What’s so special about this neighborhood is how much people care for each other,” says Cortez, “and I was blessed in coming to Boyle Heights in search of a better life because I was surrounded by others doing the same.”
“Because of that shared history, people resonated with my family’s dream and many gave what they could to help me open up our own place,” he adds.
La Sureñita, named in reference his family’s roots in Southern Mexico, opened its doors in 2015 thanks to the support of many in the community. Over the past seven years, every member of his family has helped keep the store running, from his wife Lidia Cortez-Salinas to their daughter and two sons.
A luxurious, delicious rosca
Cortez uses a traditional rosca recipe – a simple yeast dough with flour, eggs, sugar, butter and orange extract – which he shapes in to the signature rosca oval shape. The sweet bread is then luxuriously decorated to represent a crown, with jewels of cherries and candied guayaba. After rising and baking, each rosca is boxed and readied for La Sureñita’s faithful customers.
Cortez says he rarely sleeps much the day before holidays, instead working tirelessly in anticipation of long lines for the shop’s seasonal offerings. El día de los Reyes Magos tends to be La Sureñita’s busiest day, as folks line up for its delicious rosca de reyes.
“Baking a rosca was always one of my favorite things to do when I was in Guerrero,” Cortez says, “and it brings me and my family joy to be able to give the people of Boyle Heights a taste of our beautiful homeland.”