by Steve Desroches
Death comes hard to a small town. Whether it’s a well-known community leader or an artist, or a nameless, yet recognizable face on Commercial Street, when someone in Provincetown dies the loss is felt by everyone in some manner. And there are many ways with which individuals regard and respond to death, but in American culture it can often be somber, sad, and sometimes fearful or awkward. In many ways Halloween, with all its frivolity and fun, is a cultural response allowing us to laugh at what scares us, including death. But in Mexican culture el Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) is a sacred event that celebrates those who have passed in a joyous festival, incorporating art and tradition into one of that culture’s most recognizable holidays, one that is having its first commemoration here in Provincetown.
The first annual Day of the Dead Performing Arts Festival is already underway with workshops ranging from mask making to sugar skull decorating, exploring some of the Mexican cultural traditions associated with this holiday that pre-dates Christianity and the Spanish colonization in Mexico. The idea to have a Day of the Dead celebration in Provincetown came from resident Dawn Walsh, who had attended a festival when she was in her twenties in Missoula, Montana, shortly after her mother died, showing her a different way to grieve.
“If we can lose our fear of death we can lose our fears in life,” says Walsh. “And if we live life without fear, we can have a deeper life.”
While not Mexican herself, her affection for the holiday grew. This past June she had a conversation with New York performance artist Pat Olesko, who had taught a workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center, and she decided to bring the tradition to Provincetown when Olesko asked her what she was passionate about and her answer was death. It seemed all the more important to Walsh to celebrate this Mexican tradition and allow those in Provincetown to participate and add their own creativity to it considering the heated xenophobic and racist rhetoric of the election season, with talk of building walls and demonizing entire groups of people, especially Latinos. This Provincetown celebration is about appreciation, not appropriation, as well about shedding fears of the concept of the “other” and embracing cultural exchange.
“This is creating a space for a response to all of that,” says Walsh. “It’s a way we can talk back to that. This is a beautiful, invigorating, vibrant tradition that enriches our culture as well as our lives.”
The centerpiece of Provincetown’s Day of the Dead celebration will be on Wednesday, November 2 with a procession down Commercial Street where all are invited to participate. Beginning at 4:30 p.m. participants are welcome to gather in costumes, bring banners, drums, and other musical instruments, flags, and more, and there will be free face-painting. The procession will end at the Provincetown Theater where an evening of performances will take place, each about ten minutes long, with the whole event lasting about an hour to an hour and a half. To prepare for the event two more workshops will take place: “Making an Ofrenda”, an altar honoring the deceased, which will be on display in the lobby of the theater, and “Giant Skeleton Puppet Making” at Castle Hill to be used for the grand procession. All of the workshops and the evening of performance are based on a sliding scale not exceeding $20 in this volunteer-driven, community event partnering with the Fine Arts Work Center, Castle Hill, the Artist Loft, Happy Camper, the Sage Inn and Lounge, and the Provincetown Theater. Walsh and other organizers have reached out to the Mexican community on Cape Cod to participate in this event, which she hopes will not only continue to flourish, but to provide an outlet to view death a bit differently.
“I feel like this place is no stranger to death,” says Walsh. “It holds that experience in its history. This is honoring life and death through art.”
Provincetown’s First Annual Day of the Dead Performing Arts Festival’s procession takes place on Wednesday, November 2 starting at 5:30 p.m. at the Harbor Hotel progressing down Commercial Street turning onto Atkins Lane and ending at the Provincetown Theater, 238 Bradford St., where performances will begin at 7 p.m. Tickets for the performances are $10 and can be purchased at the box office the day of the event. For more information visit provincetowndayofthedead.com.