HOLIDAYS : Festival Celebrates the Dead--and Living : Three mask-making workshops will help children prepare for a traditional Mexican procession.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Halloween conjures up visions of ghoulish masked goblins. But a lesser known holiday, the traditional Mexican El Dia de los Muertos, is making a comeback with its own style of ghoulishness.

Kids can find out more about the holiday--which translates to the Day of the Dead--and learn how to make a mask during three free Saturday workshops beginning this weekend.

Then they can wear the colorfully painted masks during a festive El Dia de los Muertos procession through the streets of Ventura on Nov. 1, when costumed revelers remember the dead.

It sounds maudlin, but it's not. With its skeletons and skulls, the parade is kind of a surreal but lighthearted and boisterous celebration. Kids, wearing scary masks, carry noisemakers to wake the dead.

It's become a tradition of its own in Ventura County during the last decade as local Latinos have tried to revive the holiday. Every year the procession moves from city to city around the county, according to organizer Javier Gomez, an Oxnard artist and teacher.

El Dia de los Muertos is a blending of two cultures--the ancient Indian customs of Latin America and the Spanish-Christian observance of All Saints' Day on Nov. 1 and All Souls' Day on Nov. 2. Tradition holds that the dead are released at that time to mingle with friends and family.

Despite its macabre overtones, the holiday is also a celebration of life, according to Gomez. And it's fun to put together a costume and create a special mask for the procession. On a recent Saturday he showed local artists, teachers and others how to make the masks.

First of all, it's not easy to do yourself. It's better with two people. One of them smoothes a layer of petroleum jelly all over the face of the other. Then he or she layers wet strips of surgical gauze onto the face, leaving openings for eyes, nose and mouth. It's the same stuff used to make casts for broken bones. The strips take about 20 minutes to dry and then the mask can be lifted off and painted.

The workshops are open to anyone, but they're designed especially for kids. They will be held from 9 a.m. to noon every Saturday through Oct. 23 at Westpark Community Center, 450 W. Harrison St., Ventura, and at the Ventura Arts Council offices in The Livery, 34 N. Palm St. Preregistration is not required.

The workshops and the parade are sponsored by Oxnard's Inlakech Theatre Co. and the cultural affairs and youth-at-risk/gang prevention sections of Ventura's Community Services Department.

On Nov. 1, the adults and children in their costumes will meet at Mission San Buenaventura at 5 p.m., before they join the procession at 6 p.m. in downtown Ventura. After the parade, they'll wind up at Art City II at the west end of the city. There, 60 Aztec and Folkorico dancers from Inlakech Theatre Co. will perform. Masks made by artists and children will be on display, along with a bust of Mexican-American labor leader Cesar Chavez.

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Here's something for preschoolers. Moorpark College's Child Development Center is opening its doors Saturday for kids and parents to stop by for fun activities during its Discovery Day.

Children can mine for "gold" in the sandbox, dig for "fossils" in ice, get creative with dough, build and paint a box village, and pretend they are buying groceries.

Play time runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Cost is $4 per child, adults are free (this is a fund-raiser for the center). For information, call 378-1401.

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On a more serious note, the Thousand Oaks Teen Center is offering a self-defense and rape prevention workshop Saturday for youths ages 12 to 17. The class, from 1 to 3 p.m., teaches streetwise, self-defense techniques. The instructor is Bill Poett of Conejo Valley Karate Academy.

The workshop costs $5 and preregistration is required. For information, call 494-5156.

FYI

As part of the El Dia de los Muertos celebration, mask-making workshops will be offered on Saturdays, beginning this weekend, through Oct. 23 at Westpark Community Center, 450 W. Harrison St., Ventura, and at The Livery, 34 N. Palm St., Ventura. The free sessions will be from 9 a.m. to noon and are geared for children but anyone can attend. For information, call 648-1895 or 658-4742.

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