Giving death its due


When Indra Arriaga first moved to Alaska eight years ago, she couldn't find any Diá de Muertos celebrations to join. Arriaga had previously lived in San Francisco and Texas, where there is a well-established tradition of celebrating the Day of the Dead. Because Arriaga had a gallery space, she decided to open her personal altar to the public.

To Arriaga's surprise, many members of the community came to visit that first exhibit. The event has grown in size ever since. This year, there is a concurrent exhibit at the Alaska Humanities Forum, which gave Arriaga a mini-grant to cover the space costs for the show at Out North Contemporary Art House.

"What we find is that [the exhibit] definitely has the core of Mexican culture in it, but it changes every year and is very open," said Arriaga.

Diá de Muertos is a long-celebrated holiday in Mexico with roots that reach back to the days of the Aztecs. Traditionally, the holiday is celebrated over two days, November 1 for children and November 2 for adults. The occasion serves as a chance to honor family and friends who have passed away. by visiting cemeteries with offerings, building altars and sharing stories, often humorous, of deceased loved ones.

There will be something for everyone at Out North's eighth annual Diá de Muertos event. Traditional fare, such as hot chocolate and Mexican bread, will be accompanied by contemporary and varied performances, including the East High and Wadaiko Alaska Taiko Drummers.

"We have different groups, individuals, artists, and people who feel that there is a need for them at that time," to connect and share in the philosophy behind Day of the Dead, Arriaga said. After all, you don't have to be Mexican Catholic to feel a desire to remember loved ones and rejoice in their memories.

This year's performers come from a wide swath of backgrounds. Mexican dance group Xochiquetzal-Tiqun and the Agave Azul mariachi band (a relatively new group made up of diverse teenagers) represent the more traditional side of the event. However, Alaska's own unique heritage is also included with performances from Alaska Native artist Ricky Tagaban, who will present Tlingit mourning songs, and Iñupiaq inter-disciplinary artist Allison Warden.

"Because it is Day of the Dead, and because we feel that this is one of the few times where you can really do something that you really want to do for the right reasons, we try to also have it be on the nontraditional side," Arriaga said.

Contemporary artist and dancer Stephanie Ajax Brown will also be performing. Arriaga believes Brown adds something different to the event, as she "pushes the limits artistically but she makes people think and makes people have an experience outside of what they would normally have or expect."

Diversity is important to Arriaga, and everyone is welcome to attend and contribute to the day. After all, dealing with death "is one of the few things we have in common as human beings," she said.

Unlike Halloween, which tends to focus on the frightening and gory side of death and the supernatural, Diá de Muertos focuses on the opposite. It is a chance to "try to understand [death] as a place that is not so dark and something that we all experience," Arriaga said.

The exhibit at Out North is a riot of color, with papel picado (perforated paper) banners crisscrossing the ceiling. Altars of all sorts are spread about the space, running the gamut from a small familial display with traditional bright orange cempasúchitles (marigolds), neon iced sugar skulls, and ofrendas (offerings to the departed), to surreal modern art pieces making a political statement.

"There's the idea that the final death, the real death, is when somebody forgets you," said Arriaga. "You lived, you had a life, you died, and nobody remembers you. So, Day of the Dead is a way of circumventing that a little bit."

"You also make space for people you don't know, who need to be remembered," Arriaga said. There are several community altars where patrons are free to add pictures and names of their own loved ones.

This year's altars come from all across the Anchorage community. "We try to keep it not just at a individual, familial level, but we try to involve a lot of kids," said Arriaga. Begich Middle School and West High School each have altars in addition to several local artists and individual families. ACE/ACT post-secondary school and the Mexican Consulate also contributed.

With the help of Christina Barber, Out North Theater, the Mexican Consulate and the Rodriguez-Zinn family, Arriaga works to ensure the event is free. "If you're inviting someone to your house, you're not going to charge them admission," Arriaga said. To Arriaga, Diá de Muertos is "really about paying respect and homage to those people who have departed," and having a good time while doing so.

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