The first days of January always pose a challenge to bakers in Mexico as they face multiple orders for rosca de reyes, a traditional sweet bread eaten on Kings’ Day, January 6. But an 89-year-old baker in Oaxaca has met the challenge for the last few years with some help from his community.
Alberto Carmelo González, known to many of his neighbors as Don Beto, has been kneading, baking, and decorating breads since he was trained in Mexico City and started his business in Santa Lucia del Camino, a municipality bordering the city of Oaxaca, as a young man in need of a trade. He opened a small bakery in his house and for years made a relatively small quantity of products since he could not afford anything pricier than a regular kitchen oven.
These days, his neighbors and customers, both young and old, can be seen in his bakery, doing everything from helping him unload sacks of flour to cleaning and sanitizing items in his kitchen. They have helped him through increasingly difficult times — after González was injured on his bicycle, after he lost his wife a little over a year ago and now through the pandemic.
Over his decades-long career as a baker, González has become well known among his neighbors and others in the city who have encountered him in adjoining neighborhoods and fairs and bazaars to which he would bicycle to offer his wares for sale.
Alma Altamirano was one such person, who met him a few years ago when he arrived to sell his breads at a bazaar she had organized. Enchanted by the octogenarian, she immediately adopted him as a member of her family and kept in touch.
After a truck hit him while on his bike because González didn’t hear the vehicle’s horn, Altamirano began arriving to help her new adopted family member make rosca de reyes during the busy season.
It was a contagious move: over time, more and more members of the community have joined in to help González, spreading the word about his bakery on social media.
His cohort pooled together money at one point to buy him an industrial oven — nicknamed “The Monster” — an effort to which even people as far away as in the United States contributed.
This year, they worry that the pandemic has reduced González’s sales and are hopeful for a productive Kings’ Day selling season.
Despite his age and the fact that he stays in his home bakery now most of the time due to the pandemic and receives help from his supporters, González still works daily in his kitchen, greets customers wearing a mask, and has kept the rosca de reyes coming.
“I remain here waiting for anyone who feels like coming in,” he said enthusiastically in a video recorded by his supporters and posted on social media.