View authentic cultural traditions at Museum of Northern Arizona's Day of the Dead celebration

Holiday of Dia de los Muertos will be honored Oct. 27-28

Tanisha Kitterman, Ballet Folklorico de Colores dancer, performs at last year’s Day of the Dead celebration. Photo/Michele Mountain/©2011 Museum of Northern Arizona

Tanisha Kitterman, Ballet Folklorico de Colores dancer, performs at last year’s Day of the Dead celebration. Photo/Michele Mountain/©2011 Museum of Northern Arizona

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Fall is a joyous time of year in northern Arizona, with cool daytime breezes and clear, Milky Way skies at night. And fall is an especially joyful time at the Museum of Northern Arizona (MNA), when festival time arrives. MNA's Ninth Annual Celebraciones de la Gente on Oct. 27-28 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. honors the ancient holiday of Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead.

The festival's insightful programming, music, and dances are produced in partnership with Nuestras Raices (Our Roots), a local grassroots organization of Flagstaff's Hispanic pioneer families from the 1900s, dedicated to promoting the Mexican, Mexican American, and Hispanic cultures. Their cultures embrace a heartfelt way to express feelings for those who have gone before us and they share their custom of converting grief into music, dance, and fellowship at the festival.

Community, Mayan connections and perspectives, song, and dance are highlighted this year. Colorful folklorico dancers, a nine-member mariachi band, Day of the Dead storytelling, and Mexican roots music, along with a courtyard full of ofrendas (altars), the vibrant creativity of Hispanic arts and crafts, and food are also part of the celebration.

"For Flagstaff's Day of the Dead celebration, the museum presents a weekend that represents our region's Spanish speaking people. The color and excitement of this celebration will lift our spirits, while the authentic cultural traditions and the voices of knowledgeable educators will give us a new way to look at today's issues and views," said Robert Breunig, MNA director.

"Day of the Dead is a unique holiday. It encourages us to examine the universal experiences of life and death within the context of family and community. And it's a way to bring the community together. Hopefully they will all leave with something special in their hearts," said Anne Doyle, Heritage Program manager.

Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead is an ancient holiday. It may have originated with the Olmecs, the first major Pre-Columbian civilization in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico. This celebration was continued by other cultures such as the Toltecs, Mayans, Zapotecs, and Aztecs.

Memories of ancestors are celebrated and the souls of the departed return to visit the living. The museum's historic courtyard is lined with ofrendas, each one telling the story of a Flagstaff Hispanic pioneer family. Papel picado banners and sacred copal incense herald the celebration. Golden marigold flowers symbolize the brevity of life and lend a scented pathway to returning spirits. Candles are lit for each family member who has passed on. Calaveras (sugar skulls) sweeten the tongue and mock death with their whimsy. And sweet pan de muerto (bread of the dead) honors the dead.

Each year, Nuestras Raices creates a community ofrenda and invites visitors to bring photos and mementos of their loved ones to contribute to this special place of memory and reverence. Nuestras Raices will also give a presentation about Dia de los Muertos traditions and the preparations of ofrendas.

Tucson's Mariachi Sol Azteca, a nine-member mariachi band, will provide a unique opportunity to learn about Mexico's rich heritage of instruments and the songs they play, and hear stirring traditional mariachi music. The roots of this musical style are folk-derived and rural, however, since the 1930s contemporary mariachi music has been an urban expression, associated with post-revolutionary Mexico City and widely considered to be the quintessential Mexican music.

Flagstaff's 2011 Viola Arts Educator of the Year Sergio Padilla and Ballet Folklorico de Colores will perform three dance traditions from Mexico. Danza or indigenous dances are generally religious in nature and usually performed in community settings. Mestizo dances are also indigenous dances, reflecting European influences in the steps, themes, instrumentation, or costuming. And Bailes Regionales or regional dances are performed by most ballet folklorico performing groups in Mexico and the U.S. They will perform dances from the Aztecs (Concheros); the Mexican states of Michoacan, Veracruz, and Jalisco; and dances from Revolución Mexicana.

Los Compadres is a local community conjunto or small group, which has been playing familiar Mexican root music for the last 30 years in Flagstaff. Herman Ulibarri plays lead guitar, Frank Martinez plays trumpet, Manny Ulibarri plays guitar, and rhythm guitarist Jesse Rodriguez sings old favorite songs with bass guitarist Trini Logan.

A closing ceremony will take place on Oct. 28 from 4:30 to 5 p.m. The entire schedule of performances and activities will be posted on the museum's website at musnaz.org the week before the festival.

On Oct. 27 only, nationally-known performance artists Zarco and Carmen Guerrero will give a lively musical and theatrical presentation. They are a recognized force in the Phoenix and Mesa art scenes and have been performing at community Dia de los Muertos celebrations for 25 years. The Guerreros are dedicated to creating a better understanding of Latino arts, with folk music that addresses the themes of life and death as seen in Mexico, Chile, and Peru.

NAU Professor of Anthropology Miguel Vasquez will host Guatemalan educator Diego Chavez Petzey and his son Jose Roberto Chavez Ravinal. Petzey and Ravinal will discuss Mesoamerican cultural and historical connections, the Hopi-Mayan connection, Mayan perspectives on the 2012 prophesies, international perspectives on cultural resistance, and more. Dr. Vasquez will look at the larger issues of "where do we go from here?"

Hispanic arts will be represented by Anthony Esparza and his paintings, Gina Santi and her photography, Ralph Sena and his precious stone and silver jewelry, Emma Gardner and her paintings, Vicente Tellez and his retablos, and jewelry by both Mary Ellen Ferguson and Robin Douglas.

Flagstaff's own Southwest Eclectic Artists Association uses the contemporary art form of graffiti with spray paint. SEAA will again be in the museum's front parking lot, creating their annual mural with ancient and modern cultural images. The mural serves as an ofrenda, honoring deceased family and friends of the artists.

NAU Cline Library Special Collections and Archives will present an exhibit of historic photos. Also this weekend, visitors can take part in a sugar skull making and decorating workshop, hear Lupe Anaya tell the La Llorona story, attend a papel picado workshop to make colorful cut paper decorations, and get their faces painted.

A Piñata for Pepita puppet show by Museum docents will entertain youngsters of all ages. In the story, Pepita is visiting from Mexico on her birthday. Her abuela (grandmother) is not sure what present to give her. Will she give her a bag of wool? Seeds? Bones? Find out what the perfect gift is for Pepita.

At Creative Corner both days, creative people of all ages will enjoy making colorful Hispanic take-home paper flowers, Day of the Dead masks, and skeleton puppets.

This year's festival is sponsored by the Arizona Commission on the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, Arizona ArtShare, Arizona Humanities Council, City of Flagstaff/BBB Revenues, Flagstaff Cultural Partners, Coconino County Board of Supervisors, Salsa Brava, and the Fred Nackard Company.

Become a member in time to attend the Celebraciones de la Gente Members' Preview on Oct. 26 from 6 to 8 p.m. At the preview, Flagstaff's Mariachi Diamante will perform, the courtyard ofrendas will be lit, a craft table will engage creative visitors, and a silent auction will be held, with proceeds going to Nuestras Raices. For more information, go to musnaz.org or call (928) 774-5213.

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