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At Healdsburg’s Día de los Muertos, music, dance celebrate departed loved ones

Dancers perform in front of a crowd during the Dia de los Muertos celebration at the Healdsburg Plaza on Sunday, October 29, 2017 in Healdsburg, California . (BETH SCHLANKER/The Press Democrat)

GUY KOVNER,

People young, old and in between, Latino and Anglo, crowded into Healdsburg’s plaza Sunday afternoon for games, food and up-tempo music, joined — spiritually at least — by the souls of departed loved ones.

It was the second edition of Día de los Muertos, subtitled “An Event of the Heart,” co-sponsored by the city of Healdsburg and Corazón Healdsburg, a nonprofit dedicated to Latino services and bridging the gap between cultures in the north county community.

“The main idea is to bring back the souls of the dead and have a good time with them,” said Sealtiel Cisneros, resplendent in a dark pinstriped suit, white shirt, red bow tie and black stovepipe hat, his entire head wrapped in a white skull mask.

Cisneros, 42, was part of the 22-member Grupo Oaxaqueño, a dance troupe that drew a large audience to the center of the tree-shaded plaza.

“We like to share the day with them,” he said, speaking as if dead friends and relatives were in the crowd numbering about 1,000, according to a Healdsburg police estimate.

A huge American flag hung from a line between two ladder trucks from the Healdsburg and Windsor fire departments, parked in Center Street, with a yellow-and-red banner, “Thank You First Responders!” below the Stars and Stripes.

Día de los Muertos is not mournful, despite the presence of a traditional community altar decked with orange marigolds and decorated with photographs of those who have died, said Dawnelise Rosen, a co-founder of Corazón with her husband, chef Ari Rosen.

Marigold scent serves as a connection between the living and the dead, she said.

The event is “a celebration of life, a celebration of community, a celebration of culture,” said Rosen, 39, holding her 5-month-old son, Manny. The dark skeleton-like circle painted around her left eye, with her right eye untouched, signified the presence of life and death.

“The veil between the living and the dead is thinnest for Día de los Muertos,” she said.

This year’s event was different, she said, in the wake of North Bay wildfires that killed at least 42 people.

“It’s an opportunity to come together and say thank you” to the first responders “and give them a hug,” she said.

“Every single person in the community has been touched in some way.”

Día de los Muertos has its origins in the traditions of pre-Columbian Mexican cultures as far back as 3,000 years, and is now celebrated around the world.

Lupe Castañeda, 47, of Healdsburg, stuck to the event’s traditional meaning.

“Every single year, whatever happens, we celebrate the dead,” she said. “It’s a day we remember.”

“It’s not a sad event,” said her sister, Bertha Castañeda, 43, who dressed in a traditional Mexican long black skirt and black blouse with red embroidered flowers.

Lupe Castañeda, who wore necklace bearing small replica skulls and a bony hand, is a volunteer with Corazón who attended the June ceremony in Sacramento at which the organization was honored by Healdsburg Democratic Assemblyman Jim Woods as his district’s nonprofit of the year.

Admission to Sunday’s event was free, while Corazón took donations and sold pozole for $5 to assist fire survivors ineligible for other forms of assistance and 44 first responders who lost their homes.

Two wine country tourists — Bill and Jane Parker of Irvine, both in their 70s — accidentally found themselves in the midst of the festivities.

“We just wandered in, enjoying the weather and the community,” Bill said.

“It’s a lot of excitement. I expected an empty, quiet square.”