By VIKRAM PATEL
The deceased joined the living on a clear, chilly night in East Harlem this past Wednesday. Skeletons and marigolds jostled for space in an auditorium on the second floor of a massive brick building while candles flickered on an altar filled with bread and fruits – offerings for the departed.
Scores of community residents – mainly Mexicans – gathered at the Union Settlement Association’s 15th annual Day of the Dead celebration, an ornate gala honoring the lives of friends and loved ones that have passed away.
Día de los Muertos, as it’s called in Spanish, is a colorful example of Mexico’s traditions that have made their way over to the U.S., where the Mexican national holiday is celebrated on Nov. 2, coinciding with All Souls’ Day, a Roman Catholic day of remembrance.
East Harlem is home to one of the biggest populations of Mexicans in New York City, according to the Department of City Planning. A study conducted by CUNY’s Center for Latin American, Caribbean & Latino Studies found that if current population growth trends continue, Mexicans will become the city’s largest Latino group in 2023.
The Day of the Dead celebration kicked off with a traditional Mexican meal in the Union Settlement’s first-floor cafeteria, where hungry attendees feasted on tortas, guacamole and champurrados, a sort of Mexican hot chocolate.
The Union Settlement Association is an organization dedicated to creating educational and employment opportunities in East Harlem by providing immigrants with social programs that foster leadership and self-sufficiency in the community.
Melissa Nieves, Union Settlement’s director of adult education, said she’s learned a great deal about the Day of the Dead celebration over the years and has grown to love it, despite the fact that she’s Puerto Rican and didn’t grow up with the custom. Speaking to an audience of Mexican devotees, she introduced the celebration and used the opportunity to dedicate the night to the memory of her father and grandfather.
In Mexico, families traditionally visit the graves of loved ones and bring things like the departed’s favorite dish to leave at the site. Many also decorate the gravesites with trinkets similar to those at the East Harlem celebration.
One of the biggest differences between American and Mexican celebrations is that Mexican observations are generally much bigger and more public.
Miguel Cossio, an artist and teacher who helped create Union Settlement’s altar with students and community members earlier in the morning, said that the Day of the Dead is more festive when celebrated in Mexico, where crowds gather in the streets to venerate the deceased.
Twenty-four-year old Zyanya Vazquez, who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 6, still remembers the scenes she saw as a child.
“My favorite part is the parade,” she said. “Everybody dresses up and they start dancing.”
Jose Montiel, a 32-year-old bartender who attended the celebration with his family, said back in Mexico his parents would leave out mole, a famous Mexican sauce, for his dead grandfather who enjoyed eating it.
“We would even leave out a shot of tequila,” Montiel said with a smile.
Cossio, however, explained that the night is not only for those who have lost someone close to them.
“It doesn’t need to be a loved one,” he said. “It could be someone you really admire.”
People in the U.S. and abroad routinely set up altars for their favorite personalities, including historical figures like Frida Kahlo, Emiliano Zapata and Diego Rivera.
By 8 p.m., more attendees had begun trickling in to hear Mariachi Real de Mexico, which serenaded the crowd with an ensemble of horns and strings. Ramon Ponce, musical director of Mariachi Real, said that music in Mexican tradition is very important when conducting rituals, especially in something like this.
“It’s a joyous celebration,” he said of Día de los Muertos. “Not a sad one.”
The mariachis were followed by Raíces de Mexico, a dance group in authentic Mexican garb that showcased some the country’s traditional dances. Next up was a skit representing a dialogue between Jose Posada, one of Mexico’s most renowned cartoonists and political satirists, and a narrator reciting rhyming verses.
Posada was a pioneering figure in 19th and early 20th Century Mexican art. His 1913 zinc etching entitled “La Calavera Catrina,” or “The Elegant Skull,” depicts a female skull wearing a grandiose Victorian hat – which would go on to become one of the most famous images in Mexican art – a satire on the aristocracy of the time.
Montiel, the bartender, said he learned many things at Wednesday’s celebration that he hadn’t known about the holiday before, like Posada’s contribution to Mexican art and to the Día de los Muertos celebration.
Ponce, however, worried that too many Mexicans in the U.S. overlook Day of the Dead rituals. When asked if he thinks the younger generation of Mexicans is losing touch with the traditions, he said somberly, “In a way, they are.”
Montiel says that he brings his kids to functions like these because he wants them to remember their culture.
“We bring the kids so they can learn,” he said.
The night ended with a procession that led to a small garden in the back of the building. The sounds of the mariachis’ trumpets resonated through the halls as marchers carried candles into the dark of the night, offering the deceased one last prayer.