Friday, October 31, 2008

Traditions born in Las Cruces' recent decades

LAS CRUCES — Sometimes I still hear people say that nothing’s happening here and nothing ever changes in Las Cruces.
Those people have not been paying attention. I’m not a native, but I’ve now been here long enough to see the birth of some enduring traditions … celebrations and gatherings so rich and meaningful to many of us that they feel like they’ve been part of our community forever.
But in fact, some of our most cherished celebrations, institutions or events have been in Las Cruces about the same amount of time as I have (this is my 15th autumn here) or less.
A lot of my other favorite things were founded about the same time. The Las Cruces International Mariachi Conference, now one of the world’s largest efforts to preserve and nurture all that mariachi embodies, is celebrating its 15th year in 2008 and so are the Border Book Festival and the Doña Ana Arts Council ArtsHop.
Mesilla’s Dias de los Muertos celebrations on Mesilla’s Plaza, continuing today, are a bit younger though, of course, the roots of Day of the Dead commemorations are much, much older, and are among many ancient Borderland traditions that have been revived and celebrated by groups like the Calavera Coalition and other Las Cruces- and Mesilla-based cultural groups that are uniting the community to commemorate everything from the Gadsden Purchase and Mexican holidays to Christmas plays, pageants and customs that date back centuries.
In the past decade and a half, I’ve seen a lot of these new-old resurrections. The Rio Grande Theatre, identified to me when I first arrived as the state’s oldest adobe theater, was crumbling in 1994, when I got my first glimpse of the Downtown Mall. I talked to many who had fond memories of first movie dates and first balcony kisses there. Now it’s been lovingly restored and houses the Doña Ana Arts Council and a growing number of presentations. It’s the gem of an ongoing revitalization that has built on institutions like the Las Cruces Farmers and Crafts Market and added the burgeoning Ramble on the first Friday of each month, which now involves 18 venues, including theaters, galleries, museums and an open mic night.
What was once bemoaned as “the graveyard of high hopes” is well on its way to becoming the city’s corazon that so many have envisioned.
Some of our cultural cornerstones were firmly established when I got here and are still thriving and growing stronger.
The Las Cruces Symphony at NMSU was already a hit under the direction of Marianna Gabbi, an international superstar who was the first U.S. woman to conduct major symphonies in both China and what was then the USSR. Jerry Ann Alt was building on a rich legacy of talent in NMSU’s Choral Department, which now has six choirs and vocal groups. NMSU band and jazz and vocal groups, and the symphony under the direction of Lonnie Klein and local high school musical groups have attracted national and international attention in recent years.
Some cultural institutions made the big time decades ago. The Las Cruces Chamber Ballet, generally recognized as the oldest ballet company in New Mexico, still makes regular presentations and is carrying on despite the death of its beloved founder, Michele Self, who with her husband, Kevin, helped field generations of talented dancers, many of whom have gone on to perform in prestigious venues. And the LCCB presentation of “The Nutcracker” (Dec. 18 to 21 at the NMSU Music Recital Hall) continues to be a cherished holiday tradition.
Black Box is relatively new, but the Las Cruces Community Theatre was well established, along with The American Southwest Theater Company, which premiered works by local playwright Mark Medoff, including creations that led to movies, and two trips to Broadway (for “Gila” and “Children of a Lesser God,” which won a Tony Award and, in movie form, garnered Academy Award nominations for Medoff and an Oscar for Marlee Matlin’s performance).
Our movie roots run deep, too, and have blossomed with the advent of NMSU’s Creative Media Institute and Doña Ana Community College’s Film Tech Training Program. At last count, there were more than 20 movies in pre- or post-production in 2008, building what looks like a promising new tradition here, as we make a name for ourselves as Hollywood on the Rio Grande.
As you enjoy some of our thriving traditions this month, like RenFaire, Dia de los Muertos and the Mariachi Conference, think about the volunteers who have made them happen, and the blessings of being part of the community that keeps our rich cultural heritage alive … and fun.

S. Derrickson Moore can be reached at; (575) 541-5450.

We're all in this together

By S. Derrickson Moore
Sun-News reporter
LAS CRUCES — What a surprise if it turns out that it took a global economic crises to finally make us realize we’re all in this together.
A thought for a tough month: True friends and a fiesta spirit will get you though times of no money better than money will get you through times of no fiesta spirit nor true friends.
I woke up after a night of tortured tropical dreams. My first thought in that moment when you realize that reality can be considerably better than one’s dreams: “Gracias a Dios: I’m in Las Cruces, not in Palm Beach.”
I remember hard times in the 1980s and 90s in the capital of arrogance and greed, in a Florida county that was home to some of the wealthiest and poorest people on the planet. I quickly learned that for the very rich, nothing is ever quite enough, even in boom times.
In the enclaves of millionaires and billionaires, were some of the surliest souls I’ve ever encountered, anywhere on the planet. Especially those who had come to the end of what money could buy and found themselves spiritually bankrupt. Morally bereft. And, too often, loaded for bear.
If they were so terminally crabby and anxious in good times, imagine what the watering holes of the rich and famous have been like this fall, with the worst financial news in most of our lifetimes, breaking in regular, relentless tsunami waves.
By contrast, Las Crucens seemed to be in pretty good spirits.
Among my colleagues, it’s generally accepted that none of us went into the new biz to get rich.
As Janis Joplin warbled in “Me and Bobby McGee,” Kris Kristopherson’s immortal ditty: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
And there is a certain liberation in not having zillions invested in the stock market, which means none of us has lost zillions.
People who have paid off their homes are having a little fiesta of celebration, and those of us who bought homes with mortgages we can still afford are breathing a sigh of relief.
Most of the concern and angst I’ve heard and felt in recent weeks in Las Cruces emanated from people concerned not about themselves , but about others.
It’s a phenomenon I’d already experienced in the most impoverished corners of some of the world’s richest communities. During mild recessions, I’ve listened to millionaires anguish relentlessly about having to give up their Lear jet to economize by flying first class, or cutting out one of their many annual yacht cruises or trips to Europe. At the same time, on the other end of the economic see-saw, I’ve been in the economic trenches with seniors on very limited incomes and single moms trying to support their kids on minimum wage jobs. And I’ve seen them quietly take up collections or anonymously slip a $10 or $20 bill (a lot for someone on minimum wage) into the pocket or locker of a coworker they knew needed help even more.
I’ve seen that sharing spirit in all kinds of places in New Mexico: graceful gifts of food, clothes and folding cash in hard times.
And lately, I’ve noticed something else: a sense that we are all in this together. In a world of wars-to-end-wars that never did, I wonder if a global economic crises could ironically be the thing that finally convinces us that our fates are all inexorably linked.
And maybe, if we can figure out some creative cooperative solutions for the crises over money and credit, things the world seem ready to react to with immediacy, it would go a long way toward convincing us that creativity and cooperation could be concepts to consider for resolving issues of health, and the ecology, to say nothing of religious, ethnic and territorial issues.
Wouldn’t it be something if this money mess finally helped us band together to resolve some of the messes that the lust for material goodies has been getting us into for millenniums? What if the global economic meltdown is what finally makes us realize we are all in this together?
S. Derrickson Moore can be reached at

Friday, October 24, 2008

Make plans for Superweekend

Next weekend is shaping up as a record-breaker, even for full-tilt fiesta season. Here’s what’s coming:
• Halloween: Oct. 31
• NMSU Homecoming Weekend
• Renaissance ArtsFaire: Nov. 1 & 2, Young Park
• Dia de los Muertos: Oct. 31-Nov. 2 on Mesilla Plaza, celebrations this week in New Mexico & Texas Borderlands
• San Albino Basilica Dedication Ceremonies: Oct. 31 - Nov. 2
• Carrie Underwood Concert: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 3, Pan Am Center
• Nov. 4: Election Day

Are you a newcomer to the Borderlands? Learn more about Dsy of the Dead customs below:

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Day of the Dead basics

By S. Derrickson Moore
Sun-News reporter
LAS CRUCES — Dia de los Muertos has been called “a day when heaven and earth meet” and “a celebration of lives well lived.”
In Las Cruces, it has become a beloved tradition, a time when Borderland cultures blend, showcasing and sometimes creatively combining Spanish, Mexican, American Indian and Anglo customs and beliefs.
Dia de los Muertos “is not a morbid holiday but a festive remembrance of Los Angelitos (children) and all souls (Los Difuntos),” according to a statement from The Calavera Coalition of Mesilla. “This celebration originated with the indigenous people of the American continent, the Aztec, Mayan, Toltec and the Inca. Now, many of the festivities have been transformed from their original pre-Hispanic origins. It is still celebrated throughout North America among Native American tribes. The Spanish arrived and they altered the celebration to coincide with the Catholic celebrations of All Saints Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls Day (Nov. 2).”
Continuing a Las Cruces Style tradition, here is a guide to some important terms and concepts relating to Day of the Dead celebrations, collected during 15 years of commemorations.
alfeñique: Molded sugar figures used in altars for the dead.
ancianos: Grandparents or elderly friends or relatives who have died; ancestors honored during the first (north) part of processions for Day of the Dead.
angelitos: Literally “little angels,” refers to departed children and babies, traditionally honored during the first day of celebrations, Nov. 1, and the third (south) part of processions honoring the dead.
anima sola: A lonely soul or spirit who died far from home or who is without amigos or relatives to take responsibility for its care.
calascas: Handmade skeleton figurines which display an active and joyful afterlife, such as musicians or skeleton brides and grooms in wedding finery.
calaveras: Skeletons, used in many ways for celebrations: bread and candies in the shape of skeletons are traditional, along with everything from small and large figures and decorations, skeleton head rattles, candles, masks, jewelry and T-shirts. It’s also the term for skull masks, often painted with bright colors and flowers and used in displays and worn in Day of the Dead processions.
literary calaveras: are poetic tributes written for departed loved ones or things mourned and/or as mock epitaphs.
copal: A fragrant resin from a Mexican tree used as incense, burned alone or mixed with sage in processions in honor of the dead.
Dias de los Muertos: Days of the Dead, usually celebrated on Nov. 1 through 3 in conjunction with All Souls Days or Todos Santos, the Catholic Feast of All Saints. Various Borderland communities, including Las Cruces, have their own celebration schedules in October and November.
Difunto: Deceased soul, corpse, cadaver.
La Flaca: Nickname for the female death figure, also known as La Muerte.
Frida Kahlo: Mexican artist who collected objects related to the Day of the Dead. Her photo often appears in Dia de los Muertos shrines or retablos.
Los Guerreros: Literally, “the warriors,” are dead fathers, husbands, brothers and sons honored in the final (east) stop in Dia de los Muertos processions.
marigolds: In Mexico, marigolds or “cempasuchil” are officially known as the “flower of the dead.” The flowers are added to processional wreaths at each stop, with one blossom representing each departed soul being honored. Sometimes marigold pedals are strewn from the cemetery to a house. Their pungent fragrance is said to help the spirits find their way back home. Sometimes mums and paper flowers are also used.
mariposas: Butterflies, and sometimes hummingbirds, appear with skeletons to symbolize the flight of the soul from the body to heaven.
masks: Carried or worn during processions and other activities, masks can range from white face paint to simple molded plaster or papier-maché creations or elaborate painted or carved versions that become family heirlooms.
Las Mujeres: The women who have died are honored during the second (west) stop of Day of the Dead processions. After names of dead mothers, daughters, sisters and friends are called and honored, it is traditional for the crowd to sing a song for the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Náhuatl poetry: Traditional odes dedicated to the subject of death, dating back to the pre-Columbian era.
ofrenda: Traditional altar where offerings such as flowers, clothing, food, photographs and objects loved by the departed are placed. The ofrenda may be constructed in the home — usually in the dining room — at a cemetery, or may be carried in a procession. The ofrenda base is usually an arch made of bent reeds. It is ornamented with special decorations, sometimes with heirlooms collected by families much like Christmas ornaments. Decorations may include skeleton figures, toys and musical instruments in addition to offerings for a specific loved one.
pan de muertos: Literally, “bread of the dead.” It is traditionally baked in the shape of a skull — calavera — and dusted with pink sugar. Here, local bakeries sometimes include red and green chile decorations.
papel picado: Decorations made of colored paper cut in intricate patterns.
Posada: Jose Guadalupe Posada, the self-taught “printmaker to the people” and caricaturist was known for his whimsical calaveras, or skeletons, depicted wearing dapper clothes, playing instruments and otherwise nonchalantly conducting their everyday activities, sometimes riding on horse skeletons.
veladores: Professional mourners who help in the grief process in several ways, including candlelight vigils, prayers and with dramatic weeping and wailing.
Xolotlitzcuintle: Monster dog, sometimes depicted as a canine skeleton, sometimes as a Mexican hairless breed. Since pre-Columbian times, this Dia de los Muertos doggy has, according to legend, been the departed’s friend, helping with the tests of the perilous crossing of the River Chiconauapan to Mictlan, the land of the dead.

S. Derrickson Moore can be reached at

Thursday, October 2, 2008

What will you be for Halloween?

By S. Derrickson Moore
Sun-News reporter
LAS CRUCES — Glam or gore? Scary or sexy? Future E.T. or really retro Renaissance?
It’s that time of year again. Time to declare yourself, or maybe even reinvent yourself, if only for a day.
Or maybe several days. Costumes aren’t just a Halloween thing here in the Borderland. You’ll want to have something suitable for several occasions throughout a spectacular Full-tilt Costume Lovers Fiesta Weekend that starts with Halloween Friday and runs through Dia de los Muertos and RenFaire, both Nov. 1 and 2 this year.
Figure on a lot of pre-and post-parties, too. And election day is Nov. 4, so you might want to dress up as your favorite candidate while you’re waiting for election results.
After more than a decade on the local fiesta and costume beat, I shouldn’t be surprised anymore by the escalating gore. At Party World, you can even buy bloody simulated human body parts packed like meat in Styrofoam and plastic packages, and “French fry,” cartons filled with neat stacks of human fingers.
It seems that the scarier the times, the more frightening the Halloween costumes and decorations.
With prolonged wars on two fronts and more looming conflicts, the greatest economic dilemma in most of our lifetimes, devastating hurricanes, Midwestern floods, ecological disasters looming and burgeoning disease and food source contamination, just what can you do for a terrifying encore to very scary everyday life in 2008? Even hard-core gore seems somehow ho-hum this year. If you’re really serious about frightening others, maybe you should dress up as a salmonella-contaminated pepper or a stock market chart.
Or you could dress up as an crumbling bank building or failed brokerage house for a really scary Halloween party and add some angel wings or a skeleton mask to take your getup through to Day of the Dead celebrations.
But I predict that there will be a move away from extreme gore and a rush to creative escapism for all ages during this dress-up season.
And I have not been surprised by the national trend that finds more adults dressing up. By now, I’m used to seeing grown, otherwise macho Las Cruces men parading around in tights and suits of armor, accompanied by women in elaborate Renaissance gowns. And I’ve made many processions to local cemeteries accompanied by whole families in calavera (skeleton) drag, during Dia de los Muertos events.
There is something quite comforting in contemplating escape to that ultimate Better Place (presuming we’re headed for heaven rather than hell, of course).
It’s also kind of soothing to spend a weekend at the Doña Ana Arts Council Renaissance ArtsFaire, ambling around Young Park imagining that we’re back in what many of us presume were kinder, gentler times, those proverbial Golden Days of Yesteryear. Of course, we tend to dwell on the fairy tales and celebrations of flowering European culture ... and ignore the realities like plagues, wars, routine torture and inquisitions, and other daily miseries that prompted so many of our ancestors to flee the Old World in search of a better life.
And there’s no denying the clothes were cute. Particularly if you were a member of royalty rather than a serf or pauper.
But hey, reality is what we’re trying to avoid here, isn’t it?
It’s the one time of year when you have the chance to be whatever you long to be, from a fairy princess to a giant M & M or an inflatable body part. There’s no accounting for tastes, and this time of year, you don’t have to, so there. If you’re so inclined, you can even transform your baby into a pea pod or a miniature Elvis and dress your cocker spaniel up as Zorro.
Remake the world in your own image, or remake your image to reflect the world you want, just the way you’d like it to be. Go for it.
S. Derrickson Moore can be reached at