By Lupita Franco Peimbert.
For many years on November 2nd, going to 24th Street and surrounding areas in the Mission District was awesome. The idea was to celebrate the Day of the Dead with certain elements of the tradition, in multitud. Over the years, San Francisco’s Latino District had developed its own Día de los Muertos. There were altars, Aztec Dancers, painted faces, people dressed up as skeletons or La Catrina, white candles, Marigolds (Cempazuchi flowers) and the opportunity to connect with friends or make new acquaintances.
For me, it was the musical procession (It made me think of New Orleans,) the element that attracted me the most. I loved seeing and listening to musicians of all cultural backgrounds creating magical sounds, leading the way while the rest of us followed, lit candle on one hand and music and dance all around us. In the last several years, the procession started on 22nd St. and Bryant, proceeded on Bryant to 24th St., moved down on 24th St. to Mission St and back to 22nd. If my memory is right, many years ago we would also march on 25th Street towards Garfield Park and back on 24th St., ending in front of the Mission Cultural Center for the Latino Arts on Mission Blvd for the Aztec ceremony. One way or another, the Aztec ceremony, which included copal and incense, the four elements, drumming and ancestral dance, was the magnificent conclusion of the evening.
The procession would take over the streets and tour the neighborhood, attracting hundreds, if not thousands of people, all colors, all ages. I’d arrive after work, eat some tacos or burritos or have a drink, and then get ready to light up my little white candle. Some years I’d join my long time friends or make new ones, some years I’d be on my own.
Some people stayed on the sidelines to enjoy the procession while others like myself would just jump on it and march or dance to the sounds of blues, jazz and latin music appropriate for festive processions. Garfield park was turned into a cemetery full of arts and some years, it was highly political. The Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts and the Marigold Project made sure that this street festival was inclusive, cultural, fun, and a true community event.
Some years, I painted my face, but never as elaborate as others. I dreamed of one day dressing up like la Catrina, the presumably elegant, lady skeleton wearing a fancy hat -representing the rich and the fact that rich or poor, we’ll all day at some point. La Catrina was an illustration created by Jose Guadalupe Posada, and it is also said that it means that anybody and everybody can laugh at death.
Going to the Mission District was special for me. I am a Mexican-born who had gone to the panteón in Northern Mexico to bring flowers to my father who died when I was young. The Día de los Muertos had always being a meaningful and important Holiday for Mexicans before it reached the Mexican borders or gained international popularity.
Depending on where in Mexico you live, Día de los Muertos is simple or elaborated, but the idea with this ancestral tradition is to remember our dear ones who died, visit and bring flowers to their tombs, make altars at home with food, photos and a variety of items to welcome their spirits when they come home for a visit on that special day and night. There are also masses and religious services in remembrance to the departed. Día de los Muertos is both an ancestral practice and a belief nurtured by Christianity whether Catholic or protestant. How they celebrate is depending on the region you live and the religious group you belong to.
The Day of the Dead tradition, by the way, is simpler in Northern, Mexico, where I am from, and plenty more elaborate in central and southern Mexico, particularly in the states of Michoacán and Oaxaca, where the tradition is comprehensive. Just think about Pixar’s Coco and you’ll get the idea.
In San Francisco, the celebration has matured and acquired both creative and political tones of San Franciscans. It is a beautiful and thoughtful event, to say the least.
One time at the procession, years ago, I met this gorgeous English-Indian guy and we hit it off. The candles, the music, the painted faces, the mystery of meeting someone and feeling attracted to them made the evening even more special. I think I forgot to pray for my departed relatives. I was truly infatuated.
Another time, a few friends and I decided to paint our faces and had a blast in costume. There was also that time when one of the neighbors on 24th Street invited us to their home to watch the procession from the second floor an in-between have food, have drinks, and mingle. And there was always that moment where I would rush towards the Aztecs to get close to the ceremony, smell the incense and copal, and say hello to one of the female lead Aztec dancers, whom I have known and seen in the Mission for years.
The Mission District knew how to celebrate the Day of the Dead. Old-timers and community activists had embraced the Day since the 1970s. Over the years, the celebration grew, evolved, improved and adapted to the times, even in the midst of the latest gentrification.
But 2020 stopped it all. Like hundreds of traditions in San Francisco and elsewhere, crowds are not allowed any longer. We are told it is for health reasons and to look at the data, and remember this is science. People are fearful in bigger or lesser degrees, but the fact is large groups of people can’t be together.
The Day of the Dead, as we knew it, has died this year. There is no assurance, no certainty that large crowds will be able to gather next year or the year after, the way it used to be. There is consolation and knowing that at least one will be able to celebrate from the distance.
Like other key community and event organizers, the Marigold Project and the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts are making the Day of the Dead in 2020 mostly virtual, definitely small, careful and restricted, and even with that, they are stretching it. It is commendable how hard they are trying to keep the tradition. The resources are scarce and the stakes are high. No community organization or group would like to become, inadvertently, a source of contagion.
Alejandro Meza, a cultural events coordinator for the Mission Cultural Center told me that for all events, they are following the city’s guidelines strictly, while trying to figure out ways to continue. “We have resorted to online classes for music and poetry and now one of our main events, Day of the Dead, will be virtual this year, that is how we have adapted to the new reality. We hope things will change for the better,” he said during my impromptu visit to the Center the other día, where the MCCLA’s staff kindly allowed me to enter unannounced, face-covered on. I knew there was something going and wanted to see it in person and share it with you, who is reading this article.
Here is what is going to be happening:
On Monday, November 2, 2020 there will be activities at the Cultural Center, via online and in-person (limited), from 5:00 PM through 8:30 PM. Remotely and vía their computers, viewers will be able to see musical performances and at 7:00 PM The virtual “Festival of the Altars,” will begin.
In the Mission District, a few people at a time, 10 at a time to be exact, will be allowed to take a quick look at the less than a dozen of altars inside the Mission Cultural Center, with social distancing and face-covering mandatory. All activities will be accesible via Facebook and Youtube live.
People are encouraged to stay at home and connect to
Facebook Live @dayofthedeadsf
Youtube Live @DayoftheDeadSF – The Marigold Project.
Find more information by using the hashtag #dayofthedeadsf and if you can, support the Marigold Project and Bay Area Artists by donating today at www.dayofthedaysf.org