by Barrett Seaman –
While most kids and their families in the area, as well as costume stores and supermarkets, will be spending this month preparing for Halloween, the big event that falls each year on October 31st, the various Hispanic populations in the rivertowns see the day after Halloween, November 1st as the time to celebrate All Saints Day, or Dia de Los Santos, otherwise known as Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Many Dominican, Ecuadorian, Mexican or Colombian children don’t even go trick or treating the night before. They and their families will spend the evening preparing special foods, some of which will be brought to the grave sites of departed family members in cemeteries around the county—just as friends and relatives in their native countries will make a pilgrimage to the resting places of their loved ones.
Mexicans are known to have elaborate celebrations, with music and dancing as well as pilgrimages with food and flowers to cemeteries. Mexican-born Adriana Murphy of Sleepy Hollow Manor throws a party with her friends and neighbors—none of whom are Mexican, she said—”where everyone brings a photo of a loved one and tells a story about that person.” As an example, she explained, “I had a photo of my dad with a book because he loved to read, and a can of Coke because he loved that. Whoever wishes to share a story is welcome to do so. It’s a lovely celebration because it feels like they are with us.”
The Dominican and Ecuadorian populations, the latter being largest in Sleepy Hollow, are less demonstrative and more church-oriented, as are Colombians. Margarita Meyer said she celebrates by going to mass. “I pray for the souls of all who have died, that is what was taught to me and I carry on that tradition passed down from my Colombian roots.”
At Sleepy Hollow’s Saint Teresa Church, according to Luis Tenezaca, the priest wears purple vestments on Dia de Los Santos and says a mass for the dead. Parishioners, who traditionally dress in black for the day, make specific foods in preparation for what is a three-day observance. Regina Tenezaca, Luis’ wife, describes Cola de Morada, which is made from black cornmeal, fruits and blackberries, as a mainstay dish. Another staple: doll-shaped guaguas de pan, or “baby breads,” which are often taken to the cemetery and laid on gravesites. Some cultures, mainly Mexican, make “sugar skulls,” which are meringue and sugar confections decorated with candy sprinkles and sequins.
With no one cemetery in Westchester where there is a concentration of deceased Latinos, Dia de Los Muertos practices are less likely to be apparent to the larger population. The variety of practices reflects differing cultural roots. All stem from the fourth century Catholic celebration of All Saints Day, but each culture’s traditions incorporates indigenous pagan practices—those of the Incas in Ecuador, for example, or Aztecs in Mexico.
Centuries ago, All Saints Day, once All Hallows Day, was the centerpiece of this seasonal celebration in the larger Catholic world. All Hallows Eve—or Halloween—was merely anticipatory, like Christmas Eve. In America, the costumed renditions of ghosts and goblins have gradually given way to the likenesses of a vast array of fairy tale princesses, Ewoks and Superheroes. But among local Hispanics, the real dead are not forgotten.