San Francisco’s annual Day of the Dead celebration takes place next Wednesday, November 2. The Day of the Dead tradition began during the colonization of Mesoamerica in the 16th century, and combined the Christian All Soul’s Day and Aztec ceremonies honoring the dead. Today El Dà­ ­a de los Muertos is celebrated throughout Mexico and across the world. San Francisco’s official Day of the Dead celebration, which takes place in the Mission District, began in the 1970s and has become one of the most well attended annual celebrations in the city. Over 15,000 people are expected to take to the streets next week.  Here are my impressions from last year’s event. I recommend that you see it for yourself.

Revelers on Mission Street

While walking from my apartment to the starting point of El Dà­ ­a de los Muertos parade yesterday evening, I reflected on the happy madness of the past few days. A confluence of many events-Halloween, the Giants winning the World Series, and Election Day-have stamped a glow on the collective consciousness of San Francisco. You see it on people’s faces, hear it in the small talk, and smell the wafts of cannabis in the air. Since last Saturday, every night has been a rollicking party in my Mission neighborhood…and so I wondered what this night would reveal.

Glancing at my cell phone, I noted the time. Five minutes until 7 pm, the start of the parade opening ceremonies. My pace quickened as I approached the intersection of Bryant and 22nd Street, but already I noticed something strange. It was clear that my fellow pedestrians and I were converging on the same point, yet our strangely hushed demeanors and urgent pace unsettled me. It brought back a distant memory of being late to church on a significant holy day, scurrying across the parking lot after my parents, feeling unsure as to why we were in a rush, but knowing something important was taking place, something that I should not be late for.

Painted faces and elaborate costumes

A couple camps at the intersection of Shotwell and 24th streets.

Bryant Street was packed with bodies, and I headed straight into the pack. A plainly dressed man in brown holding a bowl of incense led the opening blessings, calling upon the crowd to vocalize. Vocalize exactly what, I wasn’t sure, but I bowed when told and blended my voice with the symphony of voices surrounding me. Staring openly at the fantastic representations of death, I appreciated the stark contrast of thick black lines outlining features on painted-white faces, visages artful in their grotesqueness. A sea of candles illuminated costumes portraying skulls and bones, made of feathers, lace, and leather. Slowly at first, the parade began to move forward, but as the drumming and dancing crescendoed in fervor and volume, so did the crowd. People played flutes, guitars, claves, bells, and whistles…or they used their voices to accompany the hypnotic beating of the drums. Entire families with children and pets marched alongside the performers. It was often unclear who was marching and who wasn’t…as everyone at some point did both. Camera flashes broke up the darkness, lending an air of paparazzi glamour to the gathering. And so I walked into the night, lost in the myriad of sights, sounds, and the smell of burning sage.

People choose to march with the parade or to stand watch.

A good spot to watch the parade

Hours later, the strains of the parade long faded, I came upon Garfield Park, where alters honoring the dead spoke to those alive, prompting us to remember, to make peace with the inevitable loss of even our very selves. A public shrine made up of hundreds of notes strung on clothes lines attracted passersby, who sat on the pavement to write personal notes to those no longer living. On this night, the division between the two worlds, the living and the dead, was suspended. I approached a small group of singers and musicians, swaying to their music, a lilting fiddle tune of eerie dissonance and charm. Gathered around an alter of candles, flowers, and statues of saints, their hauntingly mournful faces reflecting the yellow-orange of the burning flames, they were unrecognizable under the thick black and white paint; yet their honest emotions lay bare, unapologetic and beautiful before the cameras and stares of people like me.

Public shrine made up of hundreds of notes

An altar composed of tissue paper in Garfield Park

Grief, like joy, seeks its expression. And when that emotion is shared among people, the more intense and powerful its expression. Two nights ago, the Giants won the world series, and San Francisco spontaneously combusted. The instant the game was won and victory confirmed without a doubt, drivers pressed on their horns without mercy and firecrackers popped sharply in sporadic bursts. The alternating two-note ostinato of police sirens cut through the din, all the while accompanied by the underlying base-line “hum”  of voices shouting. And my reaction as a quiet onlooker safe within the walls of my apartment? Hardly annoyed, quite the contrary, I felt my own inner excitement over the win reflected in the jubilant cacaphony outside.

Honoring the dead

I, like probably many in the Dà­ ­a le los Muertos crowd, came for the spectacle of the night–the painted faces, the costumes, the music–but I walked home with my friends feeling deeply touched. I had not only looked, but I felt the sadness and the sweetness of those who held candles for their loved ones, the passion of the dancers and singers channeling their energy to connect with the sublime, and … the silent tears of a solitary young woman in Garfield Park keeping vigil over a colorful photo collage, its subject a smiling and vibrant young man, perhaps her brother or a lover. It didn’t matter.

For it’s not the dead who need this night. It’s us, the living, who come together to give expression to the tender emotions we keep tucked away, shielded from the hard edges of our modern daily life. And whether it be the acknowledgement of a memory or a wailing song to the gods, it is a deep and powerful celebration…El Dà­ ­a de los Muertos.

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  1. […] Reflections on San Franciscoâ€â„¢s Day of the Dead Festival, Ann Lam‘s article on Untapped Cities on last year’s Day of the Dead […]

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