Ashlanders celebrate traditional Latin American Day of the Dead
8212; The Dia de los Muertos was celebrated, appropriately, in the misting rain Thursday evening, with about 150 people donning skeletal masks and costumes, building altars to departed loved ones, reciting oral histories and learning how to laugh, not cry, at life's inevitable end.
"It's a thing of joy. It means honoring our ancestors and learning to laugh at death instead of fear it," said Nathan Powell, wearing the typical skull face of white, with blackened eye sockets.
"The community at the Day of the Dead means a lot, too," he said. "It's more beautiful than Halloween, which is a lot of getting drunk and acting up. Through our enthusiasm, we all get to think about our loved ones with happiness."
Mavis Muller led the gathering in a "basket of unburdening" &
8212; a tall container woven from native vines and cattails and filled with the names of the departed written on maple leaves. The leaves were burned when the procession reached the pioneer graveyard on East Main St., about a mile from the starting point at Briscoe Elementary School.
"The basket represents how the earth is here to support us, as well as to honor the departed loved ones," said Muller. The basket could be called "community interactive art," she added, and is not traditional, but part of new traditions now being invented. It was made possible by a traveling grant from the Alaska State Commission on the Arts. — Standing before a tall veil representing the thin wall between the departed and the living on the Day of the Dead, Montgomery Mahaffey told the gathering of the tales of the four generations before her and how, though poor, one set of grandparents put four children through college, noting that education, if you have it, may not seem that important, but "it's when you don't have it that you know it is important."
The Day of the Dead is an ancient Aztec holiday celebrated throughout Mexico on Nov. 1, All Saint's Day, and on Nov. 2, which is All Soul's Day. It was started last year in its present form in Ashland by Debbie Lorray, co-owner of Evo's Caf&
233;, who drew on her Jamaican roots in her native Miami.
"It's fun, a different kind of fun than Halloween," said Jessica Eriksen, who wore an orange wig and makeup.
"It's the mix of Mexican and pagan that makes it fun," said Carol Young, "and it's more special than Halloween."
"What makes it so special is the opportunity to remember our loved ones and find the ways we are still connected with them," said Sophia Bogle. "It's so great. I've never taken part in anything like this, remembering the dead in an enlivened, outward way, instead of a quiet internal way. I feel what they have to say to me. It's positive and it's definitely about love."
With drums marking the beat, the procession wound down High St., across Ashland Creek, where a "dead hula dancer" performed in skeletal costume and mask, across the plaza, where fire dancers whirled and up the Shakespeare stairs, where the Three Fates of ancient mythology greeted them.
Ritmo Allegre, a group of Latino children musicians and dancers performed the Mexican hat dance in front of the New Theatre, then the group walked to the graveyard for fire dancing by the Ashland High School dance team and the burning of names of the departed as well as scraps of paper on which revelers had written "things we want to let go of for the year."
"It was fun for me and everyone said they appreciated how it was more meaningful than Halloween," said Cantrell Maryott, who organized the event with Lorray this year.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at email@example.com.