Dia de Muertos

ArtsWatch Weekly: One for the books

Portland Book Fest turns the page, downtown gets a new museum, music and theater light up the stage, it's beginning to feel a lot like ...

WORDSTOCK IS DEAD. LONG LIVE THE PORTLAND BOOK FESTIVAL. And the city’s big blowout of a book festival, by any other name, is just around the corner: Saturday’s the day. Portland’s South Park Blocks is the site, centering on the Portland Art Museum but sprawling like free verse across the territory. “A circus is a good analogy for Portland’s big annual book event, with its 100+ authors appearing on nine stages all in one dense, delirious, daylong literary orgy,” Katie Taylor writes in her aptly titled ArtsWatch preview, Portland Book Festival: Sometimes too much is a good thing. “It’s intentional FOMO,” or Fear of Missing Out, festival director Amanda Bullock told Taylor. “There’s always something happening, a new event starting every 15 minutes. Even if one thing is full, there’s always something else to check out.”

Checking the goods at 2018’s Portland Book Festival. Photo courtesy Literary Arts

Among this year’s headliners will be the big-idea journalist Malcolm Gladwell and former Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice. As always, the party will be overflowing with authors, readers, speeches, workshops, browsers and impromptu discoveries – a blossoming of language for a book-besotted town. As for that name change, the beloved Wordstock rebranded itself last year, trading in its smart, snappy, cheeky, and memorable monicker for something that sounds a little more boardroom drab. On its web site, the festival explains the change. I’m not convinced. Then again, open book, open mind: Maybe I’m just reading too much into it. 

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Photo First: The Day of Dead

At the Portland Art Museum, a lively and well-adorned crowd comes out to join in the Mexican celebration of Día de Muertos


TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY K.B. DIXON


Día de Muertos (Day of Dead) is a national holiday in Mexico. It is celebrated throughout Latin America, the United States, and here in Portland at a handful of venues, including the Portland Art Museum and Pacific Northwest College of Art.

A truly flamboyant festival, it celebrates the lives of departed loved ones and the larger life of a diverse and vibrant community. It mocks the fear of death with ornately decorated images of the macabre.

Saturday afternoon’s celebration at the Portland Art Museum was the museum’s second time hosting the event organized by Maria Garcia, an indefatigable activist, businesswoman (she owns Revolucion Coffee), and former member of the Mexican Consulate. The event, which drew a huge crowd, included food, art, Aztec dancers, Mexican cowboys, poets, lectures, music, and an exhibition of altars. It is slated to become a regular annual offering.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: dark & stormy nights

Frankenstein, Día de Muertos, tribute bands, dinosaurs, warps & wefts, and a Dope Elf: Welcome to the art week.

TODAY IS BOTH HALLOWEEN AND THE BEGINNING OF DÍA DE MUERTOS, two holidays that have distinct backgrounds and meanings but are often linked in the public mind, because they occur each year at about the same time and because they deal, in their own ways, with the souls of the dead. Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which begins today and continues through Saturday, is a celebration that began in central and southern Mexico and has spread broadly from there. It’s a time for remembering friends and family who have died, and helping them along their spiritual journey.

Carlos Manzano as Bombón in the Día de Muertos-inspired play Amor Añejo, at Milagro Theatre through November 10. Photo © Russell J Young 

Milagro Theatre’s current show, Amor Añejo, gives you a good sense of the spirit of Día de Muertos. Bennett Campbell Ferguson, in his review for ArtsWatch, Into the Beyond, with Pain and Laughter, calls it a “tale of bereavement and rebirth.” “It’s an elegy—and more,” he continues. “The story flows from a single death that leaves everything from pain to joy to absurdity in its wake. Amor Añejo’s fullness of spirit makes it an unmissable play. At once profoundly soulful and gloriously silly, it invites us to touch the life of Hector, a painter who refuses to accept the death of his wife, Rosalita.” Naturally, that’s only the beginning.

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MusicWatch Halloween III: The Unveiling

The dead rise in Portland with a feast of tribute bands and other spooks

The world is already a haunted house. Killer clowns, mercenary robots, dystopian surveillance states, wildfires galore–what do you need a haunted house for? Instead, go lurk in the shadows with some dark music and costumed fun. There are dozens of tribute shows and other appropriately spooky concerts happening tonight (All Hallow’s Eve Eve), tomorrow (All Hallow’s Eve), Friday (Samhain), and through the weekend.

Hiding under the covers

Bands these days tend to turn their snotty punk rock noses up at the reviled “cover”–who wants to play someone else’s dead old music, when you could be creating your own new frankenstuff? Normally I heartily approve of this virtuous sentiment, as anyone who’s heard me ask “who the fuck cares about Brahms?” can attest. Local bands are your best source of folk-based contemporary composition, and even the worst among them have a creative joy that even established cover bands like the Oregon Symphony can only rarely match.

But every now and then, these folks like to turn their noses down and play dress up. And by “every now and then,” I mean Halloween season, when the veil between worlds thins to a viscous membrane and musicians reveal their secret hearts–this is the one time of year when it’s not only acceptable but downright Cool to learn Other People’s Music and play it for all your friends. Some bands do this sort of thing full time (Portland’s very busy Talking Heads tribute band Life During Wartime comes to mind), but Halloween season is when basically everybody gets in on the tribute game. Some of these bands are even making the rounds, trick-or-treating around various local venues over the next few days. Here are some of this year’s most exciting costumes.

A Bunk Halloween at Bunk Bar down on Water Avenue features Hell Beside You as Seattle ghouls Alice In Chains, New York Kids as aughts moodsters Interpol, and Victoria as dreamy duo Beach House. Up at North Portland’s stabby Kenton Club, Lobotomen does The Ramones, Danzig Fever does Misfits, Chippunks play “Rodent Punk Classics,” and The Hauer Things plays songs from the Nuggets crypt.

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“Amor Añejo”: Into the Beyond, With Pain and Laughter

Milagro's latest Dia de Muertos tale is a magnificent journey to the afterlife.

In Labyrinth of Solitude, the legendary Mexican poet Octavio Paz writes, “Our relationship with death is intimate. More intimate perhaps, than any other people.” Those words echo through Amor Añejo, a Día de Muertos-inspired tale of bereavement and rebirth making its debut at Milagro Theatre. It’s an elegy—and more. The story flows from a single death that leaves everything from pain to joy to absurdity in its wake.

Love and Death: Yolanda Porter and Ricardo Vazuez in Milagro Theatre’s Amor Anejo. Photo: Russell J Young

Amor Añejo’s fullness of spirit makes it an unmissable play. At once profoundly soulful and gloriously silly, it invites us to touch the life of Hector (Ricardo Vazquez), a painter who refuses to accept the death of his wife, Rosalita (Yolanda Porter). Hector believes that building an altar for Dia de Muertos allows the dead to fleetingly visit the land of the living, yet he can’t bring himself to build an altar for Rosalita because he can’t admit that she is gone. Perversely and poetically, her ability to return depends on whether or not he can acknowledge her absence.

Conceived by director Elizabeth Huffman and developed with the cast in rehearsals, Amor Añejo eschews formulaic plotting in favor of a more naturalistic, anecdotal approach as it reveals the history of Hector and Rosalita’s marriage in flashbacks. Since seeing the play, I’ve found myself dwelling less on character arcs than on details, like the Frog necklace Hector gives Rosalita (a reference to her passion for biology) or Rosalita’s late-in-life lament as she gazes into a mirror (“Where did that sad, middle-aged woman come from?” she wonders aloud).

Plays that span many years risk sacrificing detail for scope. Yet no matter how much time passes in Amor Añejo, you never feel as if we are looking at a vast, indistinct timeline—you feel as if you are flipping through a photo album, partly because much of the play unfolds in intimate scenes that take place at Hector and Rosalita’s dining table.

In one, their son, Paco (Carlos Manzano), is a whining child, complaining that his brother nearly broke his guitar; in another, he is an embittered young man, declaring that he will never attend a music conservatory. The images that signal the passage of time (like the A for anarchy on the back of the older Paco’s black vest) are so specific you never feel as if we are observing the family from afar — you feel as if you are living in their memories, moment to moment.

A dance with the dead in Amor Anejo at Milagro. Photo: Russell J Young

While the play’s flashbacks are a reminder of all that Hector has lost, Amor Añejo doesn’t surrender to the tide of grief. When Rosalita travels from this world to the next, she is greeted by galumphing characters in oversized masks who perform a heavy-footed dance, moving as if they have bricks strapped to their feet. It’s an uproarious sight and its inclusion in a story steeped in anguish makes a statement: that loss and happiness are not separate entities. They are part of a single continuum of feeling and to embrace one is to embrace the other — which is what Hector must do if Rosalita’s spirit is to find peace.

I wish that the play made more of Hector’s struggle. While the moments when he speaks to Rosalita — willing her to be with him, knowing that she is not — are haunting, his inner journey is the one part of the story that seems rushed. But that doesn’t dilute Amor Añejo’s sweet, surreal power. Like so many of Milagro’s plays, it is witty, colorful and impassioned. The idea that the people we lose always watch over us lost its novelty long ago, but Amor Añejo gives new weight to those words. The Rosalita who lingers after death may be a ghost or an imagining, but the play reminds you that one thing matters above all: she exists.

Have an old-fashioned Dia de Muertos — with Aztec dancing

In Newberg, the Mexican holiday is greeted with dance and a memorial offering. Meanwhile, Linfield College welcomes two authors and "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"

When Jose Carlos came to Oregon in the mid-1990s, he didn’t see much of his own Mexican culture in the community. Other Latinos attended his Woodburn high school, but public displays of culture from south of the border? No. “I didn’t see those things here,” Carlos told me recently. “I didn’t see celebrations of Day of the Dead, I didn’t see marches or Mexican celebrations, and now I see a lot. A lot of people are learning, sharing, teaching, and doing.”

Carlos and his wife, Kelly, are doing all four of those things with their Woodburn-based Aztec dance group, which increasingly finds itself in demand around Mexican holidays, particularly the annual Day of the Dead celebration. They’ve been regulars for the Chehalem Cultural Center’s Dia de Muertos celebration in Newberg the past few years, although they missed 2017 because they were in The Dalles with their company of more than a dozen dancers, helping with that community’s first public celebration.

Jose and Kelly Carlos of Woodburn will bring Aztec dancing to the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg for a free performance at 5:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 2.

They return Friday, Nov. 2, for a 5:30 p.m. performance that’s free and open to the public.

Jose started the group and is lead dance captain, while Kelly is executive director for Ritual Azteca Huitzilopochtli (pronounced wee-chee-zo-polsh-tlee), which does educational outreach and performances around the Willamette Valley and Southwest Washington. Jose credits Rigoberto Hernandez, a Chemeketa Community College teacher whom he met when Jose was a Woodburn High School junior yearning both for his own culture and fellowship. He and Hernandez started doing Chicano theater and Aztec dancing.

“In the beginning, I was shy,” he said. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to wear those kinds of clothes, I don’t want people to see my stomach.’” Today, Jose is the teacher. While you probably wouldn’t have found Aztec dancing in Oregon when he started learning it in the 1990s, now, at pow-wows, he’s accustomed to seeing nearly a hundred participants, including his group of about 17.

“Every dance we do has a meaning for the time,” he said. “We have dances that are only for the Day of the Dead, and we have dances for other holidays. These dances have been passed on to us from teachers who learned from their families.” Who, he added, have been passing dances and other traditions down through hundreds of years.

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