Día de los Muertos Is Very Much Alive

Long Island restaurateur celebrates his Mexican culture.

“Without death there cannot be life.”

And with that, restaurateur Alejandro González plunges into our journey to the beyond. It starts in pre-Columbian Mexico with Olmecs and Toltecs, collides with the Spanish conquest of the Americas, and continues right on up to today, as the tradition of Day of the Dead—Día de los Muertos—adapts to every social, political and geographical upheaval it encounters.

The dead will have their day. And they will eat.

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“When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, they brought their Catholic tradition of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day [on November 1 and 2, respectively],” says González. “But they found the native people already celebrating the dead, twice a year: in March, when all of nature began to grow and flower again, and in October, when winter was coming.”

According to Gonzalez, the natives, stricken by foreign disease and overpowered by gunpowder, may have soon been subjugated by the Spanish, but rather than give up their traditions, they adapted them to fit within the new Catholic order. So, 500 years later, on November 1 and 2, modern Mexicans may go to Mass, but they also go to the graves of their ancestors to tidy up the tombs, picnic with the favorite foods of the departed and even share a drink with the dead. In their homes they nibble on sugar skulls, eat sweetened breads adorned with doughy bones and set up colorful altars—called ofrendas—covered in marigolds, religious and secular images, treats and skulls, and lit with many candles to help the ancestors find their way.

The celebration of Día de los Muertos has come to the United States with Mexican immigrants like González and his family and, like the immigrants themselves, has adapted to its new home. This year, González’s three Long Island restaurants, Oaxaca and Quetzalcoatl in Huntington, and his newest, Chichimecas on Main Street in Farmingdale, welcome diners to share in the tradition. There will be ofrendas, special taquitos for appetizers and dessert, moles, chocolate drinks and—if the right band shows up or González decides to pick up his guitar—live music. Some of the staff will choose to paint their faces white as part of the celebration.

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For González, who came to the United States in 1989 with his wife and partner, María, sharing the history, culture and what he calls the “cosmovisión” of his native country is an integral part of sharing its food. Their restaurants, in which their son, Salvador, also takes part, are known for their authentic flavors and take much of their inspiration from the food of Oaxaca, a state on the Pacific coastline in southern Mexico.

“Oaxacans have a tremendous respect for food; they have a sixth sense for it,” says González, for whom all things can be viewed through a mystical prism. González himself is from Mexico City and his wife is from Veracruz, so the menu includes dishes from other regions of Mexico.

The decor is pure Mexican history from the days before the Spanish, when the Olmecs reigned and the wise Toltecs sent emissaries to other indigenous Americans to share their knowledge of the cosmos. Murals and paintings depicting scenes from history and legends cover the walls, and a 10-foot rendering of the Aztec version of the Toltec calendar keeps watch on the outdoor patio at Chichimecas.

This is not just for the aesthetic. Gonzalez is a very spiritual man who has studied his cosmology long and hard. A natural educator (in his native country he was a gym teacher), he explains the significance of each glyph: the snakes that wrap around the circle, the jaguars, the wind, the butterfly and eagle hidden in the design, the five eras of man.

As he explains the world view of the native peoples of Mexico, he uses the word “evolution” again and again.

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“Things have to die in order for others to live. The sun has to set so that another day can come. It is the evolution of life,” he says.

It could be a metaphor for his own journey. When a medical emergency forced the family, then living in Mexico City, to borrow money, González’s teacher’s salary was no longer enough. Alejandro and María came to the United States to find work, leaving their son behind with family for a few months while they got settled.

They started in Farmingdale doing the typical new immigrant jobs: cleaning, landscaping, dishwashing.

It was in the restaurant work that González found a way to evolve. In 1994, a small restaurant came up for sale in East Northport. The family took their savings and bought in. Called the Little Caboose, they served mostly continental cuisine but with a few Mexican dishes. “People loved them and pushed us to include more,” González says. When the opportunity to move into a newly renovated space on New York Avenue in Huntington opened, the Gonzálezes sold Little Caboose, took the Huntington property, and in 1996 Oaxaca was born. It was joined by Quetzalcoatl, also in Huntington but on Main Street,
in 2006.

Both restaurants, known for the authenticity of their cuisine, are flourishing, and now the family has come full circle returning to Farmingdale to open Chichimecas on Main Street in June of 2012.

“When I arrived on Long Island I liked it very much,” González says. “The people were friendly, there was a lot of nature, raccoons, ducks. I grew up in the Distrito Federal (Mexico City), and to see that kind of thing, you would have to travel a very long way out of the city. We didn’t speak much English, but I am a talker, and people here were very nice and open-minded. So we adapted very quickly. But when we wanted Mexican food, it was very hard to find.”

It was so hard to find that González had to travel to Passaic, New Jersey, to buy the Mexican ingredients for his restaurants. But Long Island has evolved, too. According to Newsday, “Locally, residents of Mexican origin are still a small segment of Long Island’s Hispanic population. However, their numbers nearly doubled to 26,198 in 2010, up from 13,528 in 2000—a 94 percent increase.”

And growth figures for Mexicans in the whole metropolitan area have increased so much that today Gromex of Passaic delivers, including to Long Island.

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This is a good thing for non-Mexicans, too. A visit to the Chichimecas kitchen reveals a bright and airy space redolent with the fragrance of smoked and dried peppers, among them ancho, cascabel and chile de árbol. Chicken simmers in a deep stock. Pots of beans bubble thickly. Gonzalez brings out a special spice mix for goat birria, available only at the weekends. It is pungent with peppers, thyme, cacao and bay leaves. Tortillas are piled high, waiting to be filled. Two smokers await chickens and, in November, Thanksgiving turkeys seasoned Mexican-style. A Mexican restaurant, like its Mexican antecedents, must adapt and evolve to its new circumstances.

This evolution will be on display at all three of the restaurants for Día de los Muertos, which this year happily falls on Friday and Saturday. Look for the ofrenda altars with their flowers and sugar skulls and candles celebrating the lives that came before us, making the present possible. Conch shells, whose spirals represent the continuity of evolution and life, will certainly be present. The favorite foods of the ancestors may be there. And if there is anything you don’t understand or want to know, just ask Alejandro González. He is indeed a talker and has a wealth of knowledge that he enjoys sharing as we all evolve together.

“This is a beautiful celebration in which we like to have sweet things, like the sweet bread,” he says.

“This is how we teach children that death is not sad, it is not something to be feared. It is part of us. The sugar skulls show us that the universe is something we all share. This is how life evolves.”

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Natalia de Cuba Romero writes from her home in Massapequa Park, and chronicles simple seasonal recipes for the produce she gets as a Restoration Farm member at hotcheapeasy.wordpress.com. She is a full-time lecturer at Nassau Commmunity College.