Directed by Rodrigo Melgarejo
Camera by Matthew Gamlen and Tom Oliver
Audio by Miliken Gardner
Words by Rodrigo Melgarejo
Sugar skulls burning, smiling skeletons, and the brassy popcorn of a mariachi band. It's the Day of the Dead in Portland, OR and the parade starts at Sunnyside Elementary and ends at Holocene, where Edna Vazquez will honor the family spirits with her commanding-yet-gentle voice and guitar.
For Edna, a Colima, Mexico native and Portlander of 17 years, Día de los Muertos is not only a chance to remember those close to her who've passed on-- it's a connection to her geographically distant heritage. In a city that rarely sees large displays of international culture, the celebration is emotional. For me, a native of Guadalajara, Mexico, today's Día de los Muertos march provides an opportunity to express a part of myself that's at times closed off, allowing me to get back to my roots. It's an experience Edna and I share.
And, truth is, I wouldn't have this bridge to my past if it wasn't for musicians from the local Mexican community like Edna (and Luz Elena Mendoza of Y La Bamba), who organized this procession for all of us. It's a sight to see: people of all ages and cultural backgrounds donning the bright colors of traditional Mexican garb, painting their faces with the customary Day of the Dead symbol-- the skeleton-- and gathering together with candles, candy, music, and dance to march through the streets of Portland and remember friends and family members who have passed. Though centered around death, the Day of the Dead isn't mournful; to the contrary, it's a joyous honoring of lost loved ones. The atmosphere is carnival, not funeral.
The celebration continues into the next day, when we meet up with Edna at Luz Elena's house. Upon entering, we hear music customary to homes in Latin America. Incense burns in the distance and traditional decorations are on the walls and windows, signaling the importance Hispanics put on honoring their holidays. Edna quickly dresses herself in traditional Mexican clothing, and we set the stage for her performance. Behind us, Luz burns sage as a way to bless the house and provide a spiritual ambiance.
Edna plays a song called "Piensa en Mí," or "Think of Me"-- originally written by the late-1920s Mexican musician Agustín Lara. Her voice cuts through the room like a smooth blade. Instantly, I'm mesmerized.
She has a habit of doing this to people: stunning them with her guitar and voice. It's no wonder why acts like Y La Bamba, Death Songs, and Pigeons bring her in as a guest from time to time. She's in perfect control of herself and therefor her audience.
Regardless of the performer, it's an honor to share these ancient sights and sounds-- to give Portlanders a deeper and more intimate moment with a remarkable Mexican tradition-- and I'm proud to do so through a refreshing local voice.
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