Arts & Entertainment

Three Kings Day arrives in LA, meaning big business for Mexican bakeries

La Morenita baker Vianey Chavez stands over long lines of rolled dough in preparation for baking roscas.
La Morenita baker Vianey Chavez stands over long lines of rolled dough in preparation for baking roscas.
Corey Bridwell/KPCC

Friday marks Three Kings Day for countless Catholic Latinos, and that means it also marks a day of hard selling for countless L.A. bakeries. Mexican panaderias expected to sell thousands of rosca de reyes, traditional cakes that commemorate the day.

Its 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 5. For Edward Salcedo, Three Kings Day has already begun.

“I’m here from right now 'til 5 in the morning making roscas,” said Salcedo, the eldest of the three Salcedo brothers who own La Mascota Bakery. “Gotta clean out the tamales, I need the trays — I need trays for the roscas!” (This last he yells to someone in the bakery’s kitchen, before turning back to the telephone.) “I gotta get a jump on it.”

The "roscas" Salcedo refers to are roscas de reyes, an oval-shaped cake served only on Jan. 6, or “Three Kings Day,” which commemorates the arrival in the Bible of the three magi, or wise men, at the birth of Jesus. And the thing Salcedo has to get a jump on is the mad dash seen by countless L.A. "panaderias" (Mexican bakeries) between Jan. 4 and 6 as families scramble to get their hands on the seasonal treat.

Cesar Pena of downtown’s La Morenita says his family has owned their storefront since 1953 — and Three Kings Day wasn’t always so popular.

“Back in the day, we were selling 20 pieces [of rosca] a year,” Pena said. “Now, we’re selling thousands. We’re stocking up on materials weeks, even months in advance.”

Ricardo Cervantes of La Monarca, which has been open for six years and has three locations, explained the significance of the rosca. A roll of sweetbread is topped with figs, cherries and candies before it’s rolled into an oval shape and baked.

“It started off as a circle, but then it went to Mexico,” Cervantes laughed. “We have bigger families. We need more pieces of rosca.”

But the main feature of the rosca lies inside. Baked into each cake is a plastic figurine of the baby Jesus. Hiding him in the bread represents the hiding of the actual baby in the Bible from King Herod's plan to kill all infants who could be the prophesied messiah. Whoever finds the baby is blessed — and expected to host the next party, providing tamales and atole to guests.

“Nowadays, there better be more than one baby,” added Cervantes, “so families can split the price [of the party]. Three babies in large [cakes], two babies in small. We had one lady ask to put 12 babies in the cake.”

The other feature all three panaderia owners say has changed is that more and more non-Latino families are showing up for roscas de reyes.

“'Pleasantly surprised,' I think is the phrase,” said Cervantes. “I think it’s like Cinco de Mayo, or Day of the Dead. It’s just a beautiful tradition, and everyone sees that.”

“Also,” he added. “They really are very pretty cakes.”

Jan. 6 marks the celebration of la Dia de Reyes (Kings’ Day), which commemorates the arrival of the three Magi or Wise Men.