The seasonal celebration of Día de los Muertos brings centuries-old Mexican and Latin American traditions to the streets of Tacoma.

One night every year, the air on 6th Avenue crackles with a different sort of energy. Above the drone of traffic, you hear drums. A brass band plays as a procession of people moves slowly along the sidewalk. It appears to be a funeral of some kind. But, unexpectedly, the participants are festive — dancing in the street even. This is a celebration of the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead); an occasion for the living to move beyond mourning the loss of loved ones and to celebrate the beginning of a new life for the deceased. It is tied to rituals of pre-Columbian peoples that date back thousands of years.

Tacoma Art Museum in partnership with Centro Latino is once again hosting its annual community program celebrating the creative traditions associated with the holiday. Beginning October 18, visitors can see and participate in the making of tapete (sand paintings), ofrendas (altars honoring the dead) and calaveras de sugar (skulls made of sugar). There will be face painting and Mexican dance and storytelling. Student artwork will be on display in TAM’s Community Art Space. These events culminate on November 2 in an all-day celebration and the procession up 6th Avenue, which begins at Masa (2811 6th Ave.) around 6:00 p.m.

Tacoma artist Claudia Riedener, who has played a big role in the local Día de los Muertos activities since their inception, appreciates the difference between this celebration and the mainstream cultural activity around Halloween. “This is an opportunity to get away from the plastic holiday, where you’re not really involved in the creative process yet you’re rewarded with candy,” she says. While there are sweets involved — calaveras are made of molded sugar — don’t try to eat them: the decorative figures incorporate lace, sequins and glue.

The participation of Centro Latino, an organization that provides support services to the local Latino community, is part of the plan to grow the event. Karla Tanori, a family support worker with Centro Latino, values the collaboration. “Expanding this cultural event allows us to reach more youth and to introduce them into our culture,” she say. “It’s a great opportunity.”

Mostly this festival is a celebration of life. But it also allows for reflection. “This gives you a chance to think about people you’ve lost and what that means in your own life,” says Riedener. “Our culture tends to hide death. To bring it out on the street makes it less scary, more understandable.”