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Running for the dead

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After five years of co-organizing the Day of the Dead Race, Chela Sanchez has seen participants show up for all kinds of reasons.

“We have some hardcore runners who they just want to run, they don’t care about face painting,” she said. “Even though our shirts say, ‘I dedicate my run to’ in the back, they’re just like, I don’t care about my race shirt, I just want to get the best time. That’s fine. We love those people.”

But Sanchez also sees runners who participate for reasons that echo the spirit of the event’s holiday namesake: remembrance, honor and celebration of loved ones who are no longer living.

“The way that Day of the Dead works is you’re honoring that person,” she said. “And people do just that.”

Celebrations for Día de los Muertos, a national Mexican holiday with roots in the southern and central regions of the country, vary in length, traditions and spirituality throughout the world. The people organizing this week’s events in Southern Oregon share a common passion for spreading stories and remembering their common heritages in the lives of family and friends.

Two days before runners take their marks for the 5K, 10K or mile fun run at 110 E. Main St in Talent, about 200 people are expected to turn out for a Día de los Muertos-themed “Noche de Cuentos.” The night of all-Spanish storytelling beginning at 7 p.m. Oct. 18 in the Phoenix High School auditorium will feature tales from five storytellers, preceded by a free community meal at 6 p.m. of tamales, champurrado and pan dulce.

Raul Tovar, Jr. launched the Noche de Cuentos (in English, Night of Stories) in May with his close friend Cesar Flores. Both men work with high school students — Tovar, Jr. through Rogue Community College and Flores first with Medford and now Phoenix-Talent School District — and embrace storytelling as a way to work through death.

“This isn’t something we talk about day to day,” Tovar, Jr. said. “It’s hard for a lot of people to have those conversations. But it’s important.”

The men and women Tovar selected are not public figures, but he said their stories for Day of the Dead will range in seriousness and humor. Community members including a carpenter and forest workers will tell stories about loved ones who have died and teach participants about the history of the holiday.

Tovar, Jr. said he is considering including English portions in future events, but that keeping everything in Spanish “(connects) the newer generations and older generations.”

“I wanted to provide an opportunity for adults who speak Spanish to have a creative outlet,” he said. “It really built a community that I haven’t seen outside of church.”

Chela Sanchez remembers times growing up in Southern Oregon when it was difficult to be Mexican American.

“This is where I came from,” she said, sitting in the shaded back porch of her parents’ Phoenix home. “I want my nephews to have that appreciation for their culture and their background. I want this next generation to not have that ... .”

She paused and shook her head.

“I felt shame when I was a kid because of people’s attitudes about what ‘Mexicans’ were,” she said, putting “Mexicans” in air quotes.

Day of the Dead, which Sanchez grew up keeping with her family (Tovar, Jr. did not), allows her to remember not only her family’s traditions, but the fullness of the loved ones she has lost. She has dedicated her work on the race to her cousin, Maria Elena “Nena” Rodriguez, who died from mesothelioma in 2014.

“It’s always, always, always about family,” she said.

Runners can register for the Oct. 20 Day of the Dead Race or find more information at http://dayofthedeadrace.com/

The “Noche de Cuentos” begins with dinner at 6 p.m. and stories at 7 p.m. at Phoenix High School, 745 N. Rose St., Phoenix, on Oct. 18.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneChela Sanchez places a photo in memory of Maria Elena "Nena" Rodriguez at her home in Phoenix.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneChela Sanchez holds a skull that will be given to finishers of the Day Of The Dead runs Saturday in Talent.