Portland embraces Dia de los Muertos

Three Day of the Dead culture makers talk about the holiday

“Raiz” at Miracle Theatre

By A.L. ADAMS

It’s hard to deny that Dia de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead) is “trending” in Portland. As little as two years ago, one Latino theater company seemed the primary flame-keeper for the festivities. But this year, an explosion of new awareness left virtually every Halloween party haunted by a few “calacas” (traditional skeleton figures), ushered hundreds on a cemetery walk, festooned Holocene in paper banners, and even flavored an indie-rock warehouse party.

We asked the three Latino culture-makers who coordinated the aforementioned festivities, “What do you make of Day of the Dead’s growing hype? And how can new initiates best tap in to the festival’s true meaning?”

****

Olga Sanchez Saltveit

We started with Olga Sanchez Saltveit, mainstage artistic director for Miracle (aka “Milagro”) Theatre, which has hosted a Dia de los Muertos production for 18 years, making it the longest-running celebration of the holiday in Portland. Typically a dreamlike pageant of candle-lit skeleton characters, this year’s benevolently spooky play “Raiz” plumbs back further into the holiday’s Aztec roots. The play and accompanying gallery exhibit “Ofrendas” (a showcase of altars) are on view through November 11, and Olga is eager to evangelize. Drawing from her encyclopedic knowledge of the pan-Latino experience, she explains that the Aztec calendar allocated different seasons to the worship of the over- and under- world, and the dead were thought to revisit their loved ones during a month-long season in the fall.

“Personally, I’d like to see Day of the Dead become a national holiday in America,” she says, “not just for the cultural aspect of it, but because we need a time once a year to really sit down with death and honor it, to stop taking ourselves so seriously. [As it is] we flee aging, we flee death, we put our elderly away and let other people handle that…there’s a disconnect with the whole experience, and I don’t think it’s the healthiest. The fundamental belief that the dead return on Day of the Dead means we’ve won, it’s a victory over the separation from death we may otherwise feel. And it also means relationships are deeper than the physical presence, that the heart keeps the memory alive.”

For newcomers, Olga assigns some homework: “Build an altar. Give it a couple of different layers to represent the world and the underworld. Put photos of your loved ones on it; put candles. Make a space to really remember them.”

****

Luz Elena Mendoza

Thursday at Holocene, Aztec Danza Prehispanica swooped and swayed in brightly-colored, spiky feather headdresses, stomping their anklets to hiss ancient rhythms. Giant papier-mache statues of a skeleton and a devil presided over an ornate decorative altar strewn with old photos. The club’s second annual Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration—which also featured mariachi singer Edna Vasquez, Maestro Victor’s original play “The Ancestors,” Orquestra Pacifico Tropical and a pre-party procession through the Lone Fir Cemetery—came courtesy of Luz Elena Mendoza, lead singer of popular indie-folk band Y La Bamba.

“I had a vision; shared it with everyone and people followed,” she explains, crediting the help of friends and family for drawing the capacity (500-person) all-ages crowd that was a rare mix of Hispanic families and individuals who drove from as far as Mt. Angel to attend, students from the Sunnyside Environmental School, and the dance club’s usual “hipster” contingent.

“As a Latin American raised in the States,” explains Mendoza, “I was brought up with both Mexican and Catholic traditions. My upbringing lives strongly inside of my heart and the image of my family is something that drives my inspiration. However, there are naturally certain aspects of our cultural heritage that are not carried over as strongly in the transition; aspects that I feel compelled to cultivate and hold on to. It’s important to remember where we came from and to breath the same air as our ancestors.”

As for that tradition’s newfound trendiness? She sees it as a vote of confidence: “I Like to think that when you holler, other people holler back! There’s been a growing desire within the Latin community to preserve our heritage and share it with the greater community in Portland. The more awareness, the more we can learn together.”

Mendoza, for one, isn’t too worried about revelers getting it wrong: “The celebration of life and death is something that’s universal. It’s great to see people coming together regardless of their heritage or cultural awareness.”

****

David “Papi” Fimbres

David “Papi” Fimbres, a prolific and beloved Portland musician, typically plays psychedelic prog-rock with O Bruxo, Sun Angle and others—but he recently hosted a pre-Halloween warehouse show that featured his more “tradicional” side: the 9-piece cumbia combo Orquestra Pacifico Tropical (which he un-ironically describes as “a group of rad homies”).

Decked out in skeleton face paint and a white suit, Fimbres eagerly bounced between the roles of doorman, soundman, and musician, lighting up the costumed crowd with his high-wattage positivity. While sets by Electric Ill, Gulls, 1939 Ensemble and Sun Angle kept the bill eclectic and nobody name-checked Day of the Dead, DJ Michael Bruce’s Latin beats, a “calaca” graphic on the show poster, Papi’s costume and the Orquestra’s set more than hinted at the holiday. “This is the first of many shows that I will put together around the festivities of Dia de los Muertos,” Fimbres promised. (Orquestra also participated in the festivities at Holocene.) When ArtsWatch offered to pick his brain on the subject, he replied, “My brains are pretty juicy, like carnitas!”

Papi pegs Portland’s emerging fascination with Mexico’s Day of the Dead to a much broader trend: “Death in general! look at all the zombie and horror movies that have been coming out in droves!” (Good point. Maybe amid the melange of vampires and forensic dramas, culturally significant skeletons just sell themselves?) Even so, Papi takes it as a compliment: “It makes me happy that gringos are embracing our culture more and more here in awesome Portland.”

“But,” he cautions, “if Portland’s gonna get all cultural, we should most definitely do it right. So far, it’s been pretty good, but maybe people should read more about the tradition. Don’t just slap some paint on your face and say you’re cultural. It’s also important to remember that we’re all in transition every day, everywhere on this planet. Death is another state, and to embrace it only opens up your third eye a bit more.”

“Growing up in Los Angeles, we definitely celebrated Dia de los Muertos.  My momz would make meals for days for my departed family members. The tradition in northern Mexico—and many other places as well—is that you make [the dead’s] favorite meal and they return home for one day of the year to rest, feast and relax in the comfort of their once home. I think it’s important to think about death as a positive energy and not mope in it, presuming it’s the end of someone’s journey. It’s a celebration. The most important aspect of it all is to have a great time and remember our loved ones in a shining moment of happiness.”

Comments are closed.