Karina Herrera, a baker at La Unica Panaderia, decorates a Rosca de Reyes with a sugar frosting, while bakery owner Daris Herrera prepares dried fruit to place on the pastry on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020, at the bakery in Carbondale.

Sweet Traditions: Southern Illinois’ Latin-American community celebrates Three King’s Day

By Brian Munoz for The Southern Illinoisian

CARBONDALE — Frost lingers on car windows as the glow of streetlights illuminate a quiet Carbondale West Main Street. The sound of a nearby locomotive rumbles the ground as Daris Herrera adjusts her apron as the clock inches towards 6 A.M.

Herrera runs “La Unica” Bakery alongside her sister Karina, her brother-in-law Oscar and their family friend Domingo. She opened her bakery nine years ago, nearly to the date, in hopes of providing something different to the bakery scene in southern Illinois.

Herrera said when she and her family arrived in southern Illinois, by the way of California to be closer to her mother, she realized there was not a bakery serving Latin-American styles of bread and pastries. At that point, the idea for the “La Unica Panederia” was born — translating to the “the only bakery.”

She doesn’t typically work on weekends but all hands are on deck as the “El Dia de Los Tres Reyes Magos,” or the “Three King’s Day” quickly approaches.

The business sign for “La Unica” Bakery glows against an early morning sky on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020, in Carbondale, Ill. The bakery recently had it’s ninth anniversary and serves a large variety of Mexican and Central American breads, pastries and desserts.

La Unica plays into the celebration through their Rosca de Reyes they make by hand. This year, Herrera estimates they will make anywhere from 200–300 to be delivered and sold to over 20 shops across southern Illinois, Kentucky and Indiana.

The Rosca de Reyes is a traditional pastry in Latin-American culture made to commemorate the arrival of the three wise men to an infant Jesus in Bethlehem marked by the Feast of the Epiphany in Western Christianity.

Unlike, the cake-like version of the king’s cake made in the Louisiana region, the Rosca de Reyes is more of a bread than a cake with a flour based-dough which is formed into the shape of a ring. It is also larger than your standard king’s cake, designed to accommodate sharing with many people.

The dough is then coated with an egg wash and topped with frosting, sugar and dried fruit, which is made to look like jewels and adornments of a crown.

Across cultures, a small plastic baby is hidden in the bread which is a reference to the infant Jesus in the story of the Epiphany and the Holy Family’s flight from King Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents.

Oscar Bran, lead baker at “La Unica” Bakery, places small plastic baby figurines in the dough of a “Rosca de Reyes” on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020, in Carbondale, Ill. The figurines are a reference to the infant Jesus in the story of Feast of the Epiphany.

The amount of figurines can vary based on the pastry you buy, but Oscar Bran, head baker at “La Unica” Bakery says they always attempt to place 6 in each larger Rosca de Reyes.

In Mexican culture, the person who finds the figurine is responsible for hosting a dinner party on Feb. 2 — the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. The individual is also responsible for buying the next year’s Rosca de Reyes.

Laura Leal, owner of La Galeria Mexican Cuisine & Creamery in Marion, said she remembers putting out her shoes the night before the holiday and being excited to wake up the next morning only to find her shoes filled with candy and gifts.

In Mexico, gifts are typically given out during Three Kings Day instead of Christmas Day, Leal said.

“Parents want to teach their children the lessons and background behind the three wise men and make Christmas Day not about just about getting presents,” she said.

Oscar Bran, lead baker at “La Unica” Bakery, pulls out a baked “Rosca de Reyes” from the oven on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020, at the bakery in Carbondale, Ill. Owners expect to make 200–300 pastries for the holiday celebrated largely in Hispanic communities.

Bran said the Rosca de Reyes brings family together each year and believes the tradition continues to be strong, even in younger generations of Latin-Americans which may have grown up outside of their parent’s countries.

Leal shared similar sentiments and said she wanted to spread the tradition to the people of southern Illinois so she decided to give out Rosca de Reyes during the holiday at her restaurant.

“I’ve worked in Mexican restaurants for 12 years and no one has done something like this,” Leal said. “Our slogan is ‘tradition, culture, authenticity’ so I wanted to bring the culture here and show southern Illinois what Mexico is about.”

Ashley Zhao, a doctorate candidate at Southern Illinois University, gave a perplexed look at her slice of Rosca de Reyes as she pulled out a small figurine then began smiling once a restaurant staffer explained what she had found.

“I didn’t know what it was at first,” Zhao said. “I had heard of the three magi before but wasn’t aware of the Mexican tradition behind it.”

Zhao said she enjoyed learning about Mexican culture and shows it is “more than chips and tacos.”

“I’m excited to be able to bring a little taste of Mexico’s “magical” culture to southern Illinois,” Leal said. “The party will go on to Feb 2.”

This piece originally published in The Southern Illinoisian on Jan. 6, 2020.

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Brian Munoz

Brian Munoz

Brian Munoz is a freelance multimedia journalist based in southern Illinois who tells stories out of the Midwest. He also enjoys playing classical trombone.