EAST VILLAGE — La Sirena's bright yellow walls, festooned with colorful skulls and skeletons and shelves jam-packed with skeleton figurines in all shapes and sizes make stepping into the small shop like walking into a shrine to Mexican folk art.
Every surface is covered in the figurines that are an integral part of some regions' traditional Day of the Dead celebrations, which happen each year between October 31 and November 3. The festival celebrates the memory of dead family members and loved ones and coincides with the festival of All Souls' Day that some Christians celebrate.
The three day celebration begins with the building of an ofrenda, or altar, to dead relatives or loved ones. The ofrenda, traditionally decorated with things that had some meaning to the dead person being commemorated, including personal items like their favorite food and drink, photos and other memorabilia. People also place calaca and catrina figurines (papier mache skeleton characters), paper flower decorations, bright sugar skulls, and marigolds, the flower of the dead.
La Sirena is the product of one Dina Leor's love for folk art, and Leor has had the East Village store for 15 years, though her collection began long before. Originally from New York City, she said she fell in love with the country when she visited Mexico as a child. Now, she travels there every year to tour the country and collect more pieces for her personal collection and the store.
"I am Argentine American, but I have a Mexican heart," she said. "I began this collection because of my passion for Mexican art and culture."
Pointing out the pink and blue paper banners that are strung over the ceiling, she said that the papalpicado, as they are called in Spanish, are possibly her favorite things in the store.
"They are traditional, people put them out at any Mexican celebration," she said. "They are beautiful and all handcrafted. It is an amazing artform, and it is my favorite."
Some of the more unusual items in the store include the Santa Muerte statuettes. These are statuettes of a saint figure, but with a skeleton in place of a person.
"I think that is the thing that tourists or people coming into the shop find strangest," said Leor's assistant, David Morena. "The Christian figure with the skeleton is something no one gets automatically, I think."
Leor said that she had her own ofrenda at home, but that she and others in the community had built a community ofrenda at Saint Mark's Church on East 10th Street.
Although this year's celebrations draw to a close on Sunday, Leor said her store is filled with people all year round looking for something unusual to decorate their homes with. "I carry things from all over Mexico, and even people from Mexico tell me they have never seen anything like this."
The store, which had recently been hit with a rent price hike of 35 percent, as reported in the Local, Leor said she hoped to get the funds she needed to broaden her efforts in bringing Mexican folk art to a wider audience.
"I think I am just going to have to pay that," she said, surveying one wall of her vast collection. "I don't have any other options really."
Leor's collection extends far beyond the confines of her store, on East 3rd Street. Among Leor's other future plans: starting a community art space where she can properly display her vast and varied collection.
"I'd like to have a cultural space where I could showcase these artisans," she said. "These artisans don't realize people want to see their work, and it is them that I truly want to support."