On First Friday, Nov. 4, Carbondale Arts, Thunder River Theater, Valley Settlement and Aspen Santa-Fe Ballet will present their 18th annual celebration of the Day of the Dead. As a special addition, this year also marks the 20th anniversary of Francisco Nevarez-Burgueño in his role as director of the Folklorico dance program for Aspen Santa Fe Ballet.
The celebration will begin at 4 p.m. in the Fourth Street Plaza, where there will be games, art activities, performances, food and music. For those who want to participate in the procession, walking through the streets of Carbondale to music and swaying skeletons, the crowd will gather at the Third Street Center at 5:45 p.m.
The procession will then walk back to Fourth Street where the party will continue led by Iliana and Samuel Bernal-Urbina. There will be performances by Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Folklorico, Roaring Fork Youth Orchestra and Mezcal Social until 8 p.m.
Nevarez-Burgueño, better known in the community and to his students as Paco, reflected in conversation about his past 20 years as director of the Folklorico dance program. Paco began his career at Aspen Santa-Fe Ballet in 2002 shortly after arriving in the Valley from New York. The program was already two years old, but it was Paco who continued to develop and design not only the program and the choreographies but even the costumes.
Paco remembers a piece of fabric he pulled out of a theater dumpster in Aspen. The fabric, a silky cherry that originally hung as curtains, was upcycled to create suits and dresses for the boys and girls. The result was like something from a dream, a troupe of dancers in elegant and refined costumes worthy of any prestigious stage in the country.
Today, Paco is teaching folklorico to the young children of students who were part of his first generation of dancers, and who also experienced the importance of what Paco has built over the last two decades. “If it hadn’t served them well… they wouldn’t even dare to [bring] their children,” he reflected. Paco attributes the success of the program to the discipline he instills in his students.
Beyond the choreography, with the exception of some dances from other Latin American countries, these students learn about the culture and the different regions of Mexico, and the difference in clothing from state to state. Through the music, the dancers become familiar with icons of Mexican music (such as José Alfredo Jiménez), fostering bonds between generations — grandparents, parents and children.
These dancers, many of Mexican descent, are taught about the culture and history that they traditionally would learn in Mexican schools. The tradition of the Day of the Dead is one; “Some kids don’t even know why we are going to do this… but little by little, with a bit explanation, [they understand] the reason for the dances, why we use the masks of the dead or why they paint their faces”, says Paco.
In the United States, the celebration of the Day of the Dead has become a generalization of the tradition. Each Mexican state, including Central American countries, celebrate it differently. In recent years, the popularity of this tradition has skyrocketed, animated films such as “Coco” have also contributed to the creation of a new adaptation of this ancient celebration of death, whose roots stem from the Aztecs.
“It’s an emotion of mixed feelings, because seeing Anglos join us Latinos, and I am not just referring to Mexicans, seeing them join in a spiritual, mystical celebration… we are getting together to remember.”
Paco spoke to the similarities between different cultures and their celebrations of loved ones who have passed, such as Memorial Day. The Day of the Dead in the United States, in a way, becomes an umbrella that encompasses all traditions and helps us weave our cultural mantle with multicolored threads, instead of segregating each one. “It’s a celebration for everyone,” said Paco.
Amy Kimberly, the outgoing executive director of Carbondale Arts, has been an integral part of organizing this annual event. “It has always been the dream that one day it would be planned and created by our Latino community, and it seems to me that we have already arrived.” This year there is a special focus on Paco, who Kimberly credits for keeping this tradition and culture alive in the Valley for 20 years.