Patchogue residents remember the deceased with a Dia de los Muertos celebration

By Jasmine Ganaishlal and Rosemary An

An altar adorned with the Mexican folk art depicting marigolds, colorful paper crafts known as papel picado, and sugar skulls acted as a passage for deceased members of the community to temporarily return to the Earth.

The third annual Dia de los Muertos fundraiser was held on Oct. 27 at Stereo Garden, to benefit the restoration of the Lakeview Cemetery in Patchogue. The Patchogue Chamber of Commerce event chair, Jacqueline Hensley, organized the event in an effort to mirror Mexico’s famous holiday to honor those resting in the cemetery.

The event was replete with artwork, live music from a Mariachi band, food, and laughter. “[In Mexico], music is a big part of remembering our loved ones,” Mariela Navarro of Mariachi sol Mixteco said.

The holiday, which directly translates to “Day of the Dead,” is about remembering those who are deceased while celebrating life. Although now a tradition in Latin America, it was first started by the Aztecs over 3,000 years ago.

“We’ve all experienced death, we’ve all experienced loss in our lives, and sometimes it’s almost better to celebrate them and remember them in a positive way,” Hensley said.

A tradition observed in most Hispanic countries, Dia de los Muertos is celebrated by different cultures in various ways.

“My family celebrates a watered down version [of the holiday],” Jessica Valentin, a Puerto Rican artist for the event, said. But with research and support from the Patchogue Arts Council, she was able to put in her “two cents and make an honest, real celebration of the dead.”

Another inspiration to celebrate Dia de los Muertos is the idea that when the deceased are not “remembered,” their spirit is gone forever.

“I don’t believe in superstition, but I believe in honoring the memory of the dead” Dan Lachacz, a non-Hispanic Patchogue resident, said. “Helping the cemetery obviously helps that.”

Through her artwork, Valentin deals with the loss of her two husbands. For those like her who have lost loved ones, the celebration is a way to take away from the pain death leaves behind and find peace.

Her first husband took his own life in his 20s after dealing with mental illness. Her second husband passed away from brain cancer just three years ago. “Despite that someone’s body isn’t here anymore, you feel them around, you feel like they’re with you, watching you, but you can’t prove it,” she said. “Instead of it [death] being a sad occasion, it’s more of a celebration.”

To counter the “morbidity of death,” she makes the skulls beautiful by adding colorful flowers and glitter, which she believes would be “cathartic” for those experiencing the same loss.

However, the traditional practice has metamorphosed in many ways. According to National Geographic, there is some confusion that the Day of the Dead is a Mexican version of Halloween. However, where Halloween is a night of mischief and terror, the Dia de los Muertos celebration is meant to demonstrate love and respect for the dead.

Hispanics make up 19.5 percent of Suffolk County’s population, and without a large number of Hispanic attendees, it’ll “always end up being kind of a Halloween party,” Valentin says.

Painted skeleton faces represented La Calavera Catrina, one of the most iconic symbols of Dia de los Muertos. “This is part of the culture,” Kessler, a Puerto Rican, said. “I come from a long line of family members who believe in this.”

Although to many attendees, the event was just another party. “I think Mexico has the right idea,” Benmarie Guiacummo said. “We’re gonna have a big party.”