“It was always family.”

When I first met Cortney Morentin a year ago, I had no idea she had Mexican roots. We met at a dinner that I was photographing and where Cortney had baked cookies for dessert with her business Wyldbread. I learned more about Cortney’s background when Jennifer Bolanos of Vía Raíz hosted a pan de muerto baking class in October.

In celebration of Día de los Muertos, I wanted to sit down and talk with Cortney about her background, baking, and celebrating the dead as a way to remember family history. We met in her basement kitchen in NE Portland as she made pan de muerto and told me her story.

Carly: Tell me about your background.
Cortney: I’m Mexican-Columbian, three-quarters Mexican, from Sonora and Mexico City, and one-quarter Columbian. My grandparents are the ones that made the move. Two them moved to Chicago, that’s where my grandma and grandpa met. Then, the other ones all moved to Southern California. I don’t know their story as much as I wish I did. On my dad’s side of the family, both grandparents are Mexican. I never met my grandpa, he brought up my dad and all of his siblings to not speak Spanish because it was frowned upon in Texas, where they were living at the time. They would be kicked out of places for being Mexican. My dad’s side of the family didn’t do anything to keep the culture because my grandpa was so against it. He wanted to fit into the American life. Unfortunately, I don’t have any traditions from that side of the family. But it’s my Columbian-Mexican side, my mom’s side, that I have all my traditions from. My grandma is from Mexico City, my grandpa is from Bogotá, both the capitals of their countries. I grew up really close to my grandparents. They are so family-oriented, they put all their children and grandchildren first.

Carly: That’s incredible.
Cortney: My grandparents would stand up for their kids no matter what they do. That’s the norm, I love it. It’s so special. My mom is one of 6 children. My tias and tios are so close, I grew up close with my cousins in southern California. My great-grandma had 24 kids, I grew up going to huge parties! It was a really fortunate way to grow up, seeing my cousins all the time. It was always family, I never knew anything else. When I would spend holidays with other people, like my fiancé, I realized how privileged I was to have a family that revolves all around family. Every birthday and holiday, any excuse to have everyone over, my mom would have everyone over.

That family dynamic is so strong, which I absolutely love and something I want to carry on into my own family.

My mom is so family-driven. That’s what I gained from my grandparents traveling here to start a new life. They did it for their family. I know they were thinking about their kids and their future grandchildren because it wasn’t an easy thing to do.

Carly: Can you tell me more about why they came up? Do you know the story?
Cortney: I know my tia, my grandpa’s sister, she started it. She was the one out of the 24 that started it. She moved to Chicago and risked it all. She started the journey and then everyone followed. I don’t know how many of them ended up making it, but I grew up with 12 of them being around. Unfortunately, my grandpa passed away.

Carly: Did you grow up speaking Spanish?
Cortney: My mother speaks Spanish, but my dad doesn’t, so my language with my parents was English. My grandma was trying to speak Spanish to me, and I told her that no one at school spoke Spanish and not to speak to me in Spanish. I was such a little brat! Then I started realizing how beneficial it would be and how much I’m missing out on back when I was in high school. My grandma and grandpa, aunts and uncle would also speak in Spanish and I had no idea what they were saying and I hated it.

Carly: So in high school you started to realize it might be useful?
Cortney: Yes. So when I was in college, I studied abroad in Madrid. While I learned a lot, I didn’t become proficient.

Carly: And how much exposure to the culture did you have growing up?
Cortney: The thing that stands out the most is just being with my family constantly. My grandparents would have everyone over all the time and, if it wasn’t them, it was my mom, she’s the one that carries on the tradition now. She is such a Mexican host by nature, really big on hospitality and making people feel welcome and at home, providing and always offering to do more.

Carly: Do you remember anything specific, for example, did you celebrate Día de los Muertos growing up?
Cortney: No, I didn’t. Jennifer Bolanos is the one who opened that door for me. I didn’t know much about my family and how they got here, except for my 24 tias and tios that traveled here. It’s kind of sad that it’s not talked about as much, but I think they tried not to be noticeable. That definitely was the case with my dad’s dad.

Don’t stand out, don’t speak Spanish, don’t sound Hispanic, don’t look Mexican. It’s sad.

Carly: Yeah, the focus is often on assimilation. My story is similar, when I met Jennifer, I started to wonder more about the story of my Mexican roots.
Cortney: I love that she’s pushing that on people, in the best way! To learn more and be in touch with who we are and where we come from, and why we should care so much about what’s happening right now with immigration. Because we are those people.

Carly: Yeah, it could have been us.
Cortney: I feel like I’m more inclined to speak up about being Mexican especially with what’s going on.

If you don’t know the story and the background of how you got here and you don’t share that with people who have no ties to that, then they’ll never understand or make the connection to what’s happening right now.

And how that relates to how everyone that’s Mexican got here. How we ALL arrived here. It’s unfortunate that right now there’s so much politically tied to being an ‘illegal’ and that term.

Carly: Did you feel Mexican when you were growing up?
Cortney: I totally did, but I never felt like I stood out. I knew my family was Mexican because we spent every moment together, which I know wasn’t normal with my friends. They were not with their entire family all the time. I grew up dancing and my grandma and tias and tios would go to every single performance. It was just the norm when I was little. They took time to be there, took time out of the day to show up because I’m family. That’s it. It doesn’t matter. If you’re family. You’re there.

Carly: Wow, that’s so special.
Cortney: It is! I feel so lucky. You don’t realize until later.


Carly: I grew up in a rural part of Oregon and sometimes wonder what my life would be like if I had grown up in an area like southern California, which had a strong Hispanic community.
Cortney: I feel like I had a Mexican-American community because of my family. That’s the only reason. I was surrounded by mostly white people. But Huntington Beach, where I grew up, is a lot more diverse that here in Portland. I don’t know what it’s like to grow up with an accent, but I’ve always felt Mexican. I’ve never felt ashamed of it.

Carly: Have you traveled to Mexico or Columbia?
Cortney: I went to Bogota and stayed with family, it was one of the most magical experiences I’ve ever had. I go to Mexico quite often. My mom has a house in Baja and my tia just bought a house in the same community. So, I’ve been able to experience where they are from.

Carly: What is it like when you go down to Mexico?
Cortney: Oh my god, it’s amazing. I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be. I felt that way the first time I went to Spain too. I felt like I fit in and everything made sense. My grandparents used to play mariachi all morning long, be cooking all day, and that was just the norm. To be in Mexico and be around that just warms my heart. Are you close with your family?
Carly: Yes, with my immediate family. I am one of four kids, I have two sisters and one brother, and we’re very close. My parents have been married forever and we’re all really close. My mom is one of four kids, as well as 3 adopted children, so my mom’s side is quite a big family. But we saw each other for major holidays, but weren’t part of each other’s lives at all. We’d visit my Mexican family, my dad’s side, in Chicago every once in a while, but not that often.

Cortney: Would that make you feel Mexican when you’d go there?
Carly: I remember feeling so comfortable around them. They were lively, open, affectionate. They felt much more like my people, and they had a very Mexican-American feel about them. They speak mostly English, but throw in a lot of Spanish here and there. It was always Mexican food. Big family gatherings, it just felt comfortable. Even if you’re not used to that as a kid, you just feel very welcomed. What is your fiancé’s background?
Cortney: He’s all white. He didn’t grow up close to his family, kind of the opposite lifestyle. That’s a reason why I’d like to keep my last name. It’s Spanish and I have a lot of pride in it, but I also like the idea of having his last name. We’ll see what ends up happening.

Carly: My husband is from Berlin and I ended up keeping my last name. It’s one of my few connections to my heritage. When my daughter was born, we gave her both our last names, but she got all of her dad’s coloring. She has very light brown hair, blue eyes, light skin. She does not look a quarter Mexican.
Cortney: What’s that like for you?
Carly: When she was born, I was really surprised. In some part, that was another inspiration for the project, realizing that she doesn’t look Hispanic and won’t go through the world with a body like me that looks Hispanic and is a conversation starter with all sorts of people made me want to be able to give her the story of my heritage a little bit more.
Cortney: I love that, not letting the story die. That’s actually what I think is so special about Día de los Muertos. It’s about celebrating the dead instead of forgetting. It keeps you connected to your past.

Carly: Do you know much about Día de los Muertos?
Cortney: I just learned this year. It’s a huge holiday in Mexico. I always associated the skulls as something scary, but realized it’s a celebration instead.

Carly: And pan de muerto is the traditional bread for Día de los Muertos.
Cortney: Yes, only available in Mexico during Día de los Muertos.

Carly: What makes it so special?
Cortney: It’s a sweet roll and it has orange zest and orange blossom water. And then what looks like bones on top. Some people get creative with the recipe and put in chocolate, matcha, other things. I changed the recipe to be sourdough and have yeast in it, which adds a pungent flavor of sour instead of being just a sweet bread roll. What makes one better than another is just the quality of ingredients. I was excited to try the recipe. It took me about six times to get it down.

My other big connection is food. My grandma used to make chorizo, eggs, and potatoes. My mom did the same, and would make empanadas too. My grandma would always make Mexican wedding soup. Very nostalgic.

Carly: Growing up we had lots of tamales, enchiladas, my grandma’s Spanish rice. I think my mom was actually trying harder to keep a connection to the culture than my dad.
Cortney: That sounds a lot like my dad. He raised me to be self-sufficient and to this day he is my hero, but my mom instilled in me family values.

Carly: Tell me the story behind Wyldbread.
Cortney: I was gifted sourdough starter a while ago, maybe 7 years ago now. I was just fiddling around in the kitchen. I had a blog with my ex-partner, he was an aspiring chef, and I would do a lot of baking recipes and try to make them healthy. That was the goal before. When we broke up, I kept making bread, but I thought I wanted to open a restaurant. My fiancé noticed that I’m happiest when I make bread. I realized he was right, but I’d never been trained. He was like, “Who cares? Fake it til you make it.” And I just went for it. There’s a lot of judgment that people have when you do something like that, but it doesn’t really matter at the end of the day.

Carly: Judgment because you’re not professionally trained?
Cortney: Yes, exactly.
Carly: There’s a podcast that I listened to as my business was starting to take off, the premise is that when you’re presented with an opportunity, you say yes even if you don’t have any idea what you’re doing and then you just make it work. You figure it out as you go along. If you have the energy and passion, it will work. You can’t fail if you rise to the occasion and decide to give it your all.

That’s the mentality that have pushed me to where I am. When I moved back to Portland and started my photography business, it wasn’t a question of if I can, it was a question of how. Of course, you refine along the way, see what works and what doesn’t, and adjust your path as you go.
Cortney: I realized that Wyldbread is similar to a lot of businesses here that do whole-grain baking, it’s all the same mentality, but that’s what makes it special. Everyone is trying to combat the type of ingredients that are used when baking and going back to heritage grains, being more in touch why using those are important and why supporting local is important and why being more involved in the community feels so special. Like this, it’s all about getting back to the roots.

This interview has been edited and condensed.