Day of the Dead Becoming New York Tradition

Día de Muertos altar (Photo via Diario de México USA)

The Mexican tradition Día de Muertos [Day of the Dead] will take over the city from this weekend until Nov. 4. In different places of Manhattan there are already displays with wreaths adorned with cempasúchil [marigold] flowers, papel picado [Mexican confetti], candles and little sugar skulls. Some of them are dedicated to honoring the memory of the victims of the quake that hit Mexico City on Sept. 19.

Installed in churches, restaurants, bakeries and private homes, the Day of the Dead offerings can be seen in several corners of the Big Apple and its surrounding counties, in contrast to the local Halloween celebration, on Oct. 31.

Sandra Pérez, originally from Puebla, Mexico, is in charge of the offering display at the Mexican restaurant El Paso, where she is the manager and event coordinator. She told Diario de México USA that back home her whole family used to gather once a year “to make the bread in clay ovens. All of us would chip in to make the offering, and I learned a lot.”

She said that an offering can have two, three, and up to seven levels, in accordance to tradition. “There are all kinds of symbolic aspects, such as the representation of the elements  ̶  air, water, fire, earth  ̶  the cempasúchil flowers, papel picado, photographs of the dead, salt, pan de muerto [Bread for the Day of the Dead], incense, sugar skulls, and your favorite food and drinks,” she said.

Pérez said that when she first moved to New York, “I realized that the tradition of the Day of the Dead was not nurtured here, so I decided to organize the first event on 116th Street in 2007. I called it ‘Day of the Dead Outdoors,’ and different East Harlem businesses built their altars in front of their doors. The goal was that everyone could see them and that children going home from school would notice, so they would ask their parents and start a conversation about the tradition.”

In the past five years, she added, the Day of the Dead tradition has taken hold in New York. “You can tell there is more and more interest, not only in the Mexican community, but also in others, although they are more interested in the catrinas and catrines [female and male skeleton] costumes,” she said.

“In fact, few people know about the meaning of that celebration, but they are drawn to it because it is so colorful  ̶  even though Halloween has been celebrated for more than 2,000 years in Europe by the Celts, and has changed a lot over time. I think [those festivities] should be celebrated individually, and one should not be confused with the other.”

Catrinas in Times Square

On Nov. 4, at 2 p.m. sharp, Times Square will host for the first time a sui generis event. Catrinas (and catrines) from all around New York will gather at this crowded Manhattan place as part of the “La Catrina vive en Nueva York” (Catrina Lives in New York) event honoring the Day of the Dead.

Jannet Barrientos, the organizer, said the original idea was to meet with a few friends and relatives, “15 people at most.” All would wear catrina costumes in honor of the character created by Mexican printmaker José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), meet at Times Square, and walk through Manhattan.

However, Barrientos never imagined the amount of people that would respond to the call. The event, created online, started to generate buzz and caught the interest of the Mexican community. Groups like Mariachi Nuevo Amanecer, Ballet Folklórico de Benito Bravo and Las Vaqueritas de Times Square joined in.

“Now that the event has reached such a level, I’m interested in making it as good as possible, because the name of Mexico and our tradition are on the line. I believe that, if Halloween is now popular in Mexico, Catrina has to come to New York. I’m very happy that the call has had this huge response.”

Pre-Hispanic Altar in New Jersey

Reporte Hispano also reports that a Day of the Dead altar from Puebla, Mexico, will be displayed in Passaic, New Jersey, and Brooklyn, showing the pre-Hispanic origins of the tradition.

Dia de Muertos altar (Photo via Reporte Hispano)

“We will bring from Izucar de Matamoros, courtesy of that town, an altar that is authentically pre-Columbian,” said Ana Florez, of Mi Casa es Puebla. “This altar will show how the cult of the dead was celebrated in those times, and is purely Mexican.”

The Passaic, NJ Día de Muertos 2017 will be celebrated on Saturday, Oct. 28, from 1 p.m to 3 p.m. at Mi Casa es Puebla, 77 3rd St.

The same event will take place in Brooklyn on Nov. 1, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., at Brooklyn Borough Hall, 209 Joralemon St.

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