Wednesday, Oct 31 2012 10:58 AM

They're on leave from heaven for a day

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    Decorated skulls are prominent at the Altares de Familia event at the Bakersfield Museum of Art.

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    Costumed dancers wait to perform during last year's Dia de Los Muertos Expo at Golden State Mall.

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    There will be lots of youngsters to do (like decorating sugar skulls) in the children's craft area at Altares de Familia Friday at the Bakersfield Museum of Art.

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By THE BAKERSFIELD CALIFORNIAN

Make no bones about it: Dia de los Muertos is firmly on the pop culture map. From more costumed skeletons trick-or-treating and at Halloween parties this year to a variety of local activities, the stage is set for celebrating the traditional Mexican holiday.

And it is a celebration, despite the prominent calaveras, or skulls, in the imagery. That's something the Bakersfield Museum of Art is emphasizing at its fourth annual Altares de Familia.

Related Info

20th annual Dia De Los Muertos Expo

When: 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday

Where: Golden State Mall, second floor, 3201 F St.

Admission: Free

Information: 472-6836 or 345-5842

Altares de Familia

When: 5 p.m. Friday

Where: Bakersfield Museum of Art, 1930 R St., and the adjacent Central Park

Admission: $1; free for children under 6

Information: 323-7219 or bmoa.org/altares-de-familia

Dia de Los Muertos

When: festivities begin at 5 p.m.; Dub Seeds performs at 9

Where: Muertos Kitchen & Lounge, 1514 Wall St. Alley

Admission: $10 reserved seating, $5 general admission for the show

Information: 324-2557

"It's a celebration of life. That's one thing that people misconstrue," said Amy Millis, the museum's director of development and organizer of the event.

This year's event, which spans the museum grounds as well as the adjacent Central Park at Mill Creek, is poised to be the biggest yet.

This year "we're just bigger and better taking up more of the park. Most of Central Park is dedicated to the event. We have a bigger stage and more lights."

Activities at the park include an opening Aztec blessing by Mi Tierra around 5:30 p.m. followed by more folk dancing later in the evening, and performances by Kern County Youth Mariachi Foundation, SoLuna Mexican folk ballet and Escuelas Unidas.

Along with dancing and music, the park will host about 25 vendors, a mix of sponsors, crafts and foods. Food vendors, including La Vaca Flaca, Choco's Tacos, La Rosa, Taquitos Jesus, California Italian Ice and Irene's, will serve traditional dishes such as chile verde, taquitos, tacos and burritos as well as kid-friendly kettle corn and pizza.

After the kids are fed, entertain them with face-painting and the children's craft area, which Millis said will be huge this year. Children completing each craft receive a stamp on a card, which can be used for trick-or-treating at the end of the line. Claydoh the Clown will make balloon animals to entertain youngsters as they wait.

Folks can decorate sugar skulls under the guidance of event committee member Eva Patino and her daughter, Felisa, who teamed on two recent workshops for the activity. The younger Patino will bring some of her Liberty High students to help with the project and crafts area, Millis said.

Speaking of skulls, plenty will be on display inside the museum for the student competition, which has hundreds of entries this year. Millis said along with mini-altars recognizing a person -- famous or loved one -- who impacted the student's life, young artists could opt to design calaveras to compete for cash prizes.

"The skulls are fantastic. We wanted to make it fun and mix it up, and it's such an integral part of the celebration. It goes on with our mission of education and art."

Of course, the big draw for many are the altars created by community members honoring loved ones who have died. This year, Millis said there may be as many as 35 shrines, which people had to sign up for in advance. The altars will be on display in the museum's gardens.

If you'd like even more to look at, head into the museum for the ongoing exhibit "Paul Strand: Mexican Portfolio," a collection of photographs taken in Mexico in the early 1930s. Millis said bilingual docents will be on hand for tours and information about the works.

With a hearty helping of culture and art for such a good price -- $1, free for children 6 and under -- Millis said it's the museum's opportunity to connect with the community.

"This is our big thank you to the community. Let them know that we're here, and that we're here for them."

-- Stefani Dias

Dia De Los Muertos Expo

At Golden State Mall, the festive sounds of dancing skeletons are what Dia De Los Muertos Expo organizer Cruz Reyes Ramos hopes will be an invitation to all happy spirits to join in the fun.

"I was urged by people to start celebrating this event, because of the success we've had with Cinco de Mayo," said Ramos. "In many Mexican and Peruvian cities like Aguas Calientes, they celebrate it in grand fashion. That's what we strive for. Every year it grows in our community and people look forward to it. I'm very happy with the responses we receive."

Ramos began coordinating the popular cultural event in 1992 at St. Augustine Catholic Church in Lamont under the guidance of parish priest Father John Schmoll. Within a few years, the feast outgrew Lamont, and after a few temporary stops, ended up at the spacious Golden State Mall.

"Our mission is to convey to our multi-cultural audiences what we as Mexican-Americans believe. The signature images of calaveras (skeletons,) remind us of our mortality and represent the dead playfully mimicking the living, not a scary symbol. The colors are always so bright and floral. We are focusing on respecting life."

More than 80 dancers will exhibit elaborate Mexican folk dances from SoLuna Mexican Folk Ballet, Grupo Folklorico Escuelas Unidas and the St. Augustine Skeleton Dancers, who will depict through special choreography the way celebrants believe God grants permission to the deceased in heaven to come down to the living world and be honored at a special francachela, fandango, or party.

"It's not macabre at all. Mexican people are such endearing people. Many believe that you should never cry on Dia De Los Muertos, because the path back to the living world must not be made slippery by our tears."

In addition to marking the 20th anniversary of her first event, this year's expo takes on particularly special meaning for Ramos as she will be adding a special display in memory of her brother Isaac J. Reyes, who passed away earlier this month. Ramos will place the tribute to her brother -- nicknamed "Purple Haze" for his admiration of rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix -- alongside the altar dedicated to her late father, Pascual.

"I will be placing 58 purple flowers as a birthday symbol, because I'm sure Isaac would understand I couldn't have 58 candles. We miss him very much. His sense of humor was really something."

According to Ramos, 19 colorfully elaborate family altars and offerings have been confirmed for exhibit with more to be added. Along with muertos crafting, sugar skulls, and art on display, traditional food and beverage vendors will be selling specially themed food items such as spicy tombstone tamales, Mexican panecito exquisito de muertito , or "exquisite sweet bread of the dead" and more. Plus, there will be special recognition of "La Calavera Catrina," a popular etching by famed Mexican political artist Jose Guadalupe Posada. The 102-year-old image of "La Calavera Catrina," or "The Elegant Skull," is the skeleton of an upper class woman with a large feathered hat and one of the most popular figures seen at Dia De Los Muertos celebrations.

"It's like a family reunion, complete with a banquet. The person of honor will not be forgotten."

-- Matt Munoz

Dia de los Muertos at Muertos

Honoring loved ones is a cause near and dear to Shawna Haddad-Byers, who will host a Dia celebration at her aptly named Muertos Kitchen and Lounge. The theme behind the restaurant, which opened this summer, honors Haddad-Byers' grandmother in the menu and atmosphere.

"My Sittie was all about simple but very flavorful foods and loved ones around as much as possible. I feel this is what is happening at Muertos, and I feel very blessed as I know she has guided me through this amazing process. The warmth and support we have received from Bakersfield has been incredible."

Embracing the tradition of face-painting, Bonnie Forston of Atomic Kitten Salon will be on hand offering her makeup skills for looks ranging between $5 to $20. And don't be afraid if you spot a few stylish skeletal figures downtown, Haddad-Byers said, since Forston's children Zoe and Zane, along with Haddad-Byers' son, Hudson, will hand out fliers promoting the makeup work.

"Zoe will be featured as the Corpse Bride, and Zane and Hudson will be her handsome escorts."

Also flexing her creativity is artist Lysa Luna, who will be selling her dolls. A big fan of Luna's work, Haddad-Byers owns two dolls

"She hand-crafts these brilliantly romantic, haunting dolls. I have two at Muertos, Ivan and Matilda. Lysa names all her dolls."

Earning some name recognition of her own is server Sarah Ketchum, who followed her boss to the new restaurant after the December closing of Fishlips, which Haddad-Byers co-owned. Among the new menu and drink items available Friday is her newly created pomegranate margarita.

If you want to secure a seat for dinner or the performance by reggae-rockers Dub Seeds, call for reservations. Reserved seating is $10 and general admission, which starts at 8:30 p.m., is $5.

"We are very excited. The band starts about 9 and will play a few sets. The first set is an acoustic set tribute to the Grateful Dead. Then they will play their usual fan favorites."

-- Stefani Dias

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