A steady drumbeat broke the silence of the night Saturday as 100 merrymakers paraded through an Oxnard suburb, shaking rattles and calling out to bystanders to remember the dead.
The skeleton-masked celebrants, many of them carrying candles, walked a half-mile route from Etting Road to Oxnard College to mark the traditional Mexican El Dia de Los Muertos --the Day of the Dead.
"Get out of your houses because the dead have arrived!" bellowed organizer Javier Gomez from atop a float shaped like a cemetery plot that trumpeted mariachi music as it passed apartments and houses on Bard Road.
The lighthearted and boisterous procession was another facet of Halloween, the day when youngsters dress as ghouls and witches to scare the living with images of the dead.
In traditional communities in Mexico, the living remember the dead by making an offering of presents and visiting the graves of loved ones.
In Oxnard, the parade turned out to be less than solemn.
A pair of young girls carried a banner reading, "Hasta la Muerte--"Until Death"--as seven dancers dressed as skeletons waved flags adorned with skulls.
Latino families laughed as they watched actors dressed as skeletons act out playful skits in front of dancers who were adorned in the colorful folklorico dresses of Mexico.
Some children painted their faces as skeletons and held candles as they walked briskly past a Japanese cemetery.
Gomez, a junior high school teacher from Oxnard, said the 8-year-old tradition grew out of an effort by local Latinos to bring forgotten Mexican traditions to life. Every year, the procession moves from city to city around the county, exhorting both Latino and Anglo families to remember their dead.
Nine-year-old Robert Morales pushed a stroller occupied by a papier-mache skeleton wearing a bonnet. In one arm, he carried a scythe reminiscent of the Grim Reaper. Robert said he had seen a muertito , a dead child, and wanted his face painted as a skeleton.
"It's scaaary," he said.
Many of the participants had spent the day at Oxnard College preparing masks and costumes for the event.
At a mask-making workshop, a half-dozen children and adults covered their faces with bandages and made plaster-of-Paris likenesses to paint.
Nancy Robards, 60, of Oxnard said as she made the mask that she felt close to her deceased mother, who died when Robards was a child.
"She was very beautiful, tall and dark, and she enjoyed cooking a lot," Robards said. "It's more than a death mask--it's celebrating all forms of life."
Oxnard residents Angel Morales, 28, and Jose Andrade, 16, led the skeletons with a steady cadence as they beat on drums. The ruckus drew curious bystanders out of their apartments and houses, some shirtless and holding babies.
George Rabosky Jr., 22, said he heard the drumming and was surprised to see a procession of skeletons dancing in the street in front of his house.
"I've never seen anything like this on the street," he said. "Pretty interesting."
Rabosky's 50-year-old father, George Rabosky, said he was also surprised by the nocturnal visitors.
"I've been living here in Oxnard for 20 years, and they never had one like this before," he said.
Even some Latinos who sat watching from a sidewalk were awe-struck as they stood in the cold to watch the procession pass.
One bystander, David Magallanes, said he brought his daughter, 8-year-old Amanda Xochiquetzal, so she could see a ritual he had discovered when he visited his Mexican roots.
"I want her to experience her culture," said Magallanes, 42, of Oxnard. "I don't want her to lose it."