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Day of the Dead Festivities Brighten Up East Harlem

By Tuan Nguyen | November 2, 2011 7:04pm | Updated on November 3, 2011 9:38am

EAST HARLEM — Halloween costumes are back in the closet and the candy's mostly gone, but in East Harlem, the fun had just begun Wednesday as organizers prepared the annual Day of the Dead festival.

The traditional “El Dia de los Muertos,” or "Day of the Dead," is a Mexican tradition that has spread throughout the world honoring those who have died through a multi-day festival coinciding with the Catholic celebration of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day on Nov. 1- 2. 

Wednesday's festivities at the Union Settlement Association, at 237 E. 104th St., began with the construction of a cross-shaped altar covered in colorful paper and fringe and loaded up with offerings of bread, water and sweets for those who have died.

“The Day of the Dead is the commemoration for the souls that have passed away,” said Miguel Cossio, a visual artist who helped decorate the space. “It’s pre-Spanish with a mix of Christianity.”

“It’s a very important celebration,” added Cossio, who was born in Mexico before coming to the States in the mid-1990s.

Cossio said the tradition honors the belief that the souls of the dead return to the Earth on Nov. 1 and Nov. 2 and visit the homes of their loved ones, where they look for the things they liked in life, from bread to fruit to a drink of water.

On Wednesday, Cossio led a team of volunteers who decorated the cross-shaped altar with food and drinks, bright flowers and paper-mache skeletons with grimaces or bony smiles.

The evening events were expected to stretch into the night with a traditional feast, dancing and a Mariachi band.

“Not many countries in South America celebrates it the way we celebrate in Mexico,” said Cossio.