As artist, Daniel Valle put the finishing touches on the paper machete skeleton, an elderly woman placed a bottle of tequila on the altar. Three small boys stirred up the yellow marigold flower petals lining the floor chasing one another, their eyes dark shadows set in macabre face paint.
Skeleton statues leaned on the altar, mouths stretched open in unearthly grimaces.
It may seem like a Halloween haunted house, but the display marked the start of a Mexican celebration honoring the deceased.
The food is to entice the departed souls of loved ones, and the flowers, a scented passageway to the world of the living.
The gymnasium at the Union Settlement Association at 237 East 104th Street was transformed for Day of the Dead celebrations where East Harlem residents of Mexican descent reached out to the dead to come back to the world of the living October 30.
Latinos make up over 48 percent of the population in East Harlem according to an American Community Survey, and the Mexican community consists of 11,686 residents.
During Dias de Los Muertos, participants build altars and adorn them with the special foods and pictures, hoping to entice the departed.
The holiday is a fusion of Catholic and indigenous traditions according to Valle, and each aspect of the celebration is intended to give dead loved ones a “warm welcome back”.
Skeleton-shaped “calavera” art decorated the space in the form of sculptures, sugar candies and face-painted children.
Altars feature photographs of deceased loved ones and foods like pan de muertos, or “bread of the dead”. The sweet roll is shaped like bones and eaten at the altar or gravesite weeks leading up to the holiday.
Melissa Nieves, event host and director of United Settlement Association Adult Education Program, said the altars act as a meeting place for the dead and the living.
“It is the belief that during this time, the dead are actually here,” said Nieves. “The souls can come to eat, see the flowers and hang out with us and celebrate for that night.”
Jorge Fierro is honoring his late uncle and two cousins during the celebration. He also hopes to reach out Luca, his dog that died of cancer.
“Dias de Los Muertos is about family,” said Fierro. “You put things at the altar that that person liked, so they will come back during this time.”
Fierro said this is favorite Mexican holiday and looks forward to the cultural display.
The event included a performance by Mariachi Real de Mexico and a dance performance by Ballet Folklorico Xochitquetzal.
As the six young women balanced candles on their head while swirling the hems of their long, white traditional Mexican dresses, the candles were lit at the altar.
Many audience members clutched pictures of dead loved ones. Eight-year-old Guillermo held a picture of his grandfather. His face was painted white with red paint dripping from the corner of his bottom lip like blood.
The Day of the Dead celebration starts at midnight October 31 and runs until November 2.
Union Settlement Association, the oldest and largest social service provider in East Harlem, offers programs from early childhood to adult education.
“We always seek to hold events that are culturally relevant to our students and participants in our programs,” said Development and Communications Associate Sarah Kuras. “We have been holding this event for about twenty years.”
The New York State Council on the Arts provided support for the program.
“It’s not scary,” said Nieves. “The skeletons are dancing and there is music. It’s a celebration of our ancestors”.