For some local Latino residents, once the costumes and candy were put away, Halloween was the kickoff of another important, and much-beloved celebration, the Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos — a two-day period to remember departed loved ones.
In homes, restaurants and churches across the East End, Mexican immigrants proudly displayed decorated altars in a pyramid shape with colorful cloths, sugar skulls, “cempaxóchitl” flowers (marigolds,) copal incense, photographs of their departed loved ones, religious imagery, candles, tequila and traditional foods.
In Riverhead for example, DeJesus Deli & Taquería, decorated their storefront and only for a few days, sold traditional hand-made sugar skulls and figurines and ‘pan de muerto,’ a specially shaped baked dough prepared only at this time of year.
But within the Mexican immigrant community of Riverhead and the North Fork, there is a group for which this tradition is a blend of cultures and traditions that transcends history, language and borders.
The Mixtec community of Riverhead are an indigenous Mesoamerican people who immigrated from the mountainous region of Guerrero, Mexico. Mixtecan, their language, is a blend of consonant-rich languages that have little to do with Spanish (for example, goodbye is ndene’e), and in fact, many do not know how to speak Spanish outside of a few words — much less read it or write it.
They are tight-knit, shy, hard-working community that has banded together and thrived on the North Fork, a majority of them working the fields, raising families and proudly carrying on their indigenous traditions, which include the Day of the Dead.
The Day of the Dead, itself a fusion of cultural customs and beliefs, dates back 3,000 years to the Aztecs and was later adopted by Spanish conquistadors. Initially the celebration was done during the summer months but the Spanish moved it to a Nov. 1 and 2 observance to coincide with All Saints or All Souls Day, a time when Catholics pray for the souls of departed relatives.
On Friday evening, about a dozen local Mixtec immigrants joined Father Gerardo Romo at the the Church of the Redeemer in Mattituck. Romo, a Mexican native, is the coordinator of the Episcopal Church North Fork Hispanic Ministry. The group gathered at the Mattituck church — where they regularly congregate — to say the final prayers of a two-day ritual that blends Catholic and ancient traditions into one, unified message of love for those who have gone into that final good night.
Alicia, a Mixtec woman living in Riverhead with her family, was one of about a dozen who attended the celebration. She and others, including Father Romo, had prepared several dishes of traditional foods like tamales, chicken with mole sauce and ‘chicharrón verde‘ for the occasion.
Alicia, who had her own altar at home, said in broken Spanish that it was important for her to celebrate with her community and to pass on that tradition to her children. She said it was something that “everyone” celebrated back in her small town, a tradition that has carried over for generations.
“I do this for my family and to honor my father,” Alicia said. “I feel very happy to be here.”