Staten Island Advance | October 29, 2007

Staten Island Advance featured The Day of the Dead celebration by Tevah Platt.

Mexican community marks Day of the Dead

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — The Cromwell Center was vividly alive yesterday as hundreds celebrated the Day of the Dead, the traditional Mexican event known in Spanish as Dia de los Muertos.

Altars set up in the Tompkinsville gym were laden with typical offerings for the deceased — traditional breads, skull-shaped candies, skeletal clay sculptures and bright marigolds.

“At home we have a smaller version of this altar, set up with little candles and pictures of the grandparents,” said Mario Centeno of Rosebank, who explained the significance of the offerings to his children, aged 6 and 7. “On the altar we put things the person used to like when they were alive — like bread, beer or tequila or their favorite drink — because we believe they come back that night to do the things they enjoyed in their waking life.”

Returning souls are said to be thirsty after their long journey to the world of the living.

The souls of children are honored on Nov. 1 and adults are remembered the next day with bittersweet rituals that combine Spanish Catholic and pre-colonial traditions.

“It’s mixed because you are remembering your dead, but also you are celebrating that they have passed on to a better life,” Centeno said.

Mexican artist Irma Bohórquez-Geisler has organized the annual Staten Island celebration for the past 15 years. This was the first year the event was held in the Cromwell Center, which was large enough to accommodate hundreds of spectators, altar and craft tables, a mariachi band, tables serving tamales and mole, and dancers in fantastic, oversized costumes.
“It helps the [Mexican] community to feel that they belong here,” said Ms. Bohórquez-Geisler. “And we can share our traditions with the larger community.”

The Port Richmond-based Ballet Folklorico Quetzalcoatl performed several dances typical of various regions of Mexico. Dancers in peacock feather headdresses blew into conch shells and shook rattles as they danced the “concheros,” a series of ceremonial Aztec dances.

“We wanted to learn something that was really digging into the Mexican culture,” said Jesus Bolanos of New Springville, director of the two-year-old dance group that meets at the St. Mary of the Assumption R.C. Church, Port Richmond. “The Day of the Dead is one of the most important days because we are celebrating and remembering our dead people so that we don’t forget about them.”

At craft tables, children dressed paper-doll skeletons in clothing made from fabric, ribbons and sequins, assembled orange and yellow tissue paper marigolds and learned to make “papel picado,” or detailed tissue paper cut-outs.

Families celebrating the day brought in photographs of departed loved ones, along with hot chocolate and breads baked according to regional traditions.

The rituals were new to Helen Liguori of Great Kills, whose roots are in Puerto Rico.

“It means so much to me to see the culture come alive,” she said of the colorful spectacle. “For me, it’s like a Broadway play.”
The event is made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts, and sponsored by the New York State Institute on Disability Inc.