Bringing life to los Muertos

Public helps El Teatro Campesino prepare for its annual celebration

Flor de Ruda and Kris Hernandez take part in El Teatro Campesino’s Dia de los Muertos workshop. Photo: Robert Eliason

Día de los Muertos has a long history of celebration in the community of San Juan Bautista. 

In 1971, El Teatro Campesino brought the celebration of the Mexican holiday to the community, and has since made it a recurrent festivity for the town.  

This year, from Nov. 1-3, El Teatro Campesino will celebrate the multi-day holiday (which honors the lives of departed loved ones) with a weekend-long cultural festival of dance, music, teatro and community. 

But as with any festivity, much preparation is needed—and many hands make light work.

“We wanted to bring people together to create art,” said ETC company member, Cristal G. Avila. 

Avila has organized and is directing ETC’s Free Art Making Workshop, made public at the playhouse throughout the months of September and October. Participants will be creating the large masks and puppets that will be used during the Día de los Muertos events on Nov. 2. 

“These puppets are the ones that are going to make their way through the procession,” Avila said. “Since Día le los Muertos is always such a beautiful event and it’s celebrated by so many people, this is a way to include more people in this process…even if some of them can’t partake in it the day of.”

Avila said the Dia de los Muertos procession has existed off and on throughout ETC’s history, only absent when staff has been called to other projects. Last year, for instance, many of the staff were located at a Los Angeles event. 

“The community really missed it and we missed it as a production team, so we decided to commit to it this year,” she said. “So that’s where the puppet idea really came about.”

Avila said the Art Making workshop will consist of four phases, where participants will be shown how to use simple materials to create the puppet molds, how to apply paper mâché to lock it in to a shape, how to apply painting techniques, and how to bring movement—or life—to the masks and puppets. All the while, participants will be creating three large scale Alebrije Puppets, two large Calavera Masks, paper flowers, and a large banner for the procession.   

ETC General Manager Christy Sandoval said this series of workshops was designed to build upon each other, but also simultaneously allow participants to experience complete sessions if only able to attend once.

“So depending on how often participants join us, they will engage in at least one of these phases in the process,” Sandoval said.

The puppets and masks will be displayed at the Día de los Muertos procession on Nov. 2, where live music and “a couple of other extra surprises” will take place, Avila said. 

Sandoval mentioned this year’s procession will pay tribute to ETC by replicating the style of its early performances. 

“On the flat beds of trucks, a mobile stage [was] created that the audience then [followed] behind,” she said.  

It will follow a route of various stops in downtown San Juan Bautista, eventually bringing everyone back to the playhouse. There, guests will find many of the lobby spaces at ETC will be transformed into galleries of traditional altars commemorating the dearly departed. 

They will also find entertainment taking place over the weekend, specifically with daily performances by the Watsonville Folklorico Dance Troupe, Esperanza del Valle ( “the anchor” of the weekend, according to Sandoval).   

Sandoval encourages people to partake in their workshops, and hopefully catch a glimpse of El Teatro Campesino’s approach to theater. Many people who do, often return for future workshops—such as participant Rocio Rojos.

Rojos, who has attended past workshops, also attended the first two workshops of this series, and plans to return for the last ones.

“I got my daughter interested in Teatro about four years ago with Día de los Muertos,” said Rojos, who herself was a member of the playhouse in the 1990s. “This workshop is really cool, learning how to do puppets and the process. ‘You’re making something out of nothing,’ Cristal tells the adults and kids. You step back and you’re like, ‘oh wow, it’s starting to shape into something.’ These puppets take life; take form. So it’s going to be neat seeing all these puppets that are being made out there.” 

The Día de los Muertos Free Art Making Workshops will be held at El Teatro Campesino, 705 Fourth St. in San Juan Bautista. 

Phase One, “Intro to Mask & Puppets, Design & Mold Creation,” was held on Sept. 16, 17 and 22. Phase Two, “Adding Paper Mache layers,” was held Sept. 23, 24, and will continue on Sept. 29 from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Phase Three, “Painting & Techniques,” will be held on Sept. 30, Oct. 1 and 3 from 5-8 p.m. and on Oct. 6 from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Phase Four, “Movement,” will take place Oct. 8 and 9 from 5-8 p.m.

An Altar Making Workshop will also take place on Oct. 24 (time is yet to be determined). 

All ages are welcomed, and the public is encouraged to sign up for more than one workshop. Spaces are limited; email Cristal G. Avila to RSVP at [email protected] For updates/more information, visit www.facebook.com/elteatrocampesino or www.elteatrocampesino.com.

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