On a brisk Saturday night in Jackson Heights, Queens, a display case of spun sugar skulls, skeleton figurines and miniature altars was carefully tended by sales clerk Sahery Moreno at the Mexicana Bakery on Roosevelt Avenue.
The items, which stood out against shelves of salsa, soda and canned vegetables, were on sale for the upcoming Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a Mexican holiday, celebrated Oct. 29 to Nov. 2, when families and communities erect personal and public altars to departed loved ones and gather at cemeteries to mourn the dead and to celebrate life.
“It’s a really big deal here [in Jackson Heights],” said Moreno, a native of Veracruz, Mexico, who gestured proudly to the case. “These just went on sale today. We only sell them in the fall.” As she spoke a young couple pushed their daughter’s stroller in front of the case to ogle the rows of off-white skulls decorated with colorful lacings of frosting and stickers bearing a selection of common Spanish names.; they sell for $2.50 a piece.
The edible skulls are used as altar offerings, or ofrendas, for the dead. The tradition dates back centuries to Mexico’s pre-Hispanic Aztec culture which celebrated an annual festival for the goddess Mictecacihuatl, known as the Lady of the Dead. After the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico in 1519, the holiday was eventually moved from August to correspond with the Catholic All Saints Day on November 1.
In addition to the skulls, altars typically include a variety of perishable offerings, symbolic of the ephemeral nature of life. Ofrendas are symbolic and range from a sampling of a departed’s favorite vices, such as tequila and cigarettes, to water, representing life, to pan de muerto, a bread shaped to resemble bones or skeletons that decorated with sesame seeds symbolizing tears or red sugar for flesh and blood.
In its fusion of indigenous and Spanish traditions, the holiday is quintessentially Mexican and a staple of the country’s culture at home and abroad.
“For us, Dia de los Muertos is a lot more meaningful than Halloween” said Francisco Lopez Jr., a co-owner of the Don Paco Panderia y Cafeteria, a family-owned Mexican bakery in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
The neighborhood, together with Jackson Heights, is home to the majority of the 122,600 Mexican immigrants recorded in the 2000 New York City census.
For the Lopez family, the three weeks before Dia de los Muertos are the busiest and most profitable of the year. On average, the bakery, which includes a branch in Spanish Harlem, sells 8,000 pan de muerto rolls, for $1.35, and loaves, for $45. Customers from as far away as Texas and Florida order the bread in bulk.
On a recent Sunday morning, after services at Pentecostal church across the street, the bakery bustled with families who filled tin trays with fresh bread and mingled in front of a colorful Lopez family alter and three large baskets filled with pan de muerto.
Lopez is happy to see his business become a gathering spot for Mexicans and Americans alike. Recently school groups have toured the bakery and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum placed a bulk order for sugar skulls.
“Lots of parents come in here to buy bread and pass the tradition along to their kids,” he said. “American teachers come in here to buy sugar skulls to show their students the tradition is alive. It is good for us to pass it along; it is such a beautiful tradition.”