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Thursday, November 8, 2012

Tucson's Day of the Dead

Tucson, Arizona is close to the Mexican border, and never more so than on el Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. The Day of the Dead is celebrated on November 1 and 2, and according to this Wikipedia article, can be traced to an indigenous, pre-Hispanic festival in Mexico. Skulls were kept to symbolize death and rebirth. Now skulls and skeletons are everywhere as symbols of the holiday.

The Day of the Dead is an occasion to honor and remember family members and friends who have passed away. Maybe even to encourage their spirits to visit the living and hear the prayers we offer for them. And, like many things in Mexico, the holiday has evolved to include a bit of humor. The traditions and activities are different from town to town even within Mexico. And they have danced right across the border into Arizona, where Tucson has developed its own traditions and activities.

The University of Arizona hosted an author reading by Luis Urrea. His "Hummingbird's Daughter" is one of my all time favorite books, so I had to go. Here's my review of it in Goodreads.

  The Hummingbird's DaughterThe Hummingbird's Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's not quite magic surrealism, because the events are more concrete and reality-based than that. The narration is quietly hilarious. The tone, the events, the characters all beautifully capture the feeling of how magical Mexico is.

Hmmm...I think the correct term is "magic realism." Oh, well. And bonus, because it was all part of a Day of the Dead celebration, we also got mariachi music and Mexican folk dances and pan muerto, a sweet bread. They promised Mexican hot chocolate, but I'm not sure if it really counted, because it was a thermos of hot water with packets of instant Swiss Miss hot chocolate.

The mariachis were little! They were Las Aguilitas de Davis, from Davis Elementary School,  with musicians from grades 1-5. The music was quite good. And the kids were really cute in their charro suits and skeleton makeup.

The high cuteness factor makes Las Aguilitas a hard act to follow. But the university's Grupo Folklorico Miztontli held their own with beautiful Mexican folk dances, also performed in skeleton makeup.

And then we all followed the performers in a mini-procession from the basement of the bookstore to the auditorium in the Student Union Building, where Luis Urrea read to us. But really, he told us a story. I saw him holding the book and glancing at it for the words, but he performed it for us in such a way that the whole audience was transported to the home of the old woman and her family who babysat him as a little boy while his father was at work. Beautiful! I hate to admit this, but I'm not positive which book he was reading from--I missed that part talking to my friends right at the start! But I think it was, "Nobody's Son: Notes from an American Life." And in any case, I am definitely planning to read more of Luis Urrea's work.

The next procession was more arduous. My friends Sue and Alice and I joined the pilgrimage from St. John's Church in South Tucson to San Xavier Mission, a walk of eight miles.

St. John's Church

We walked the eight miles to honor the lives of those people who lost their lives along the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona in the past year.

179 crosses, one for each of the people who passed away. If the person was identified, his or her name was written on the cross. Many bodies were not identified, and their crosses were labeled "Desconocido", or "Unknown."

We gathered behind the church and the organizers told us some rules about crossing streets and made some promises about breaks and snacks and water along the way. Then they talked about all those desconocidos, who had been found alone in the desert and not identified, and that most likely their families don't know what has happened to them. We would honor them and bear witness that they had passed through this life by carrying a cross for each of them and thoughts of each of them on this procession.

 Lining up...

 ...lining up...

 ...and we're off!

Here we're passing out of Tucson and onto the Tohono O'Odham reservation.

About four or five miles in, Alice (above, in white hat and purple shirt) and I were trying to remember why we were doing this. It was hot, and the scenery we passed through was not as pleasant as our usual hiking excursions. But Sue (in blue) never wavered. 

 Along the way, we passed this altar for a deceased loved one.

 Our final rest stop. Notice the bottles of pain relievers there in front of the fruit and pretzels! Some good planning by the organizers!

And we could just see San Xavier Mission, only about a half mile away now. It's those white rounded towers poking up at mid-horizon. Yay! We're getting closer.

When we reached the mission, crosses from the previous several years were already laid out in this circle. As I walked up, it hit me hard that each of those was a person who was lost. And then I remembered what I was doing there.

Several people took turns reading the names of those whose crosses we had carried with us, including desconocido. As each was read, the person holding that cross placed it at the edge of the circle.

 One of the mission priests offered a blessing...

 ...and we were done.

 An altar set up by the mission priests.

That's me, Sue, and Alice hoping we can get a ride back to Tucson....which we did, thanks to Sue's persistence!

The event Tucson is most known for is the huge All Souls' Procession through downtown. I'd say this is also the event that most incorporates that Mexican humor. The procession started in 1990, when Tucson artist Susan Johnson was grieving the passing of her father. Inspired by Mexico's Day of the Dead celebrations, she offered a performance to honor his memory. Other local artists liked it, and the celebration grew into Tucson's All Souls Procession. This year, organizers estimated 35,000 participants paraded over two miles through downtown.

I headed to the parade route with Sue and Alice and Tami (who lives only two blocks from the route and let us park in her apartment complex--score!) to bask in all the craziness. While, of course, offering our respects to the dead. And here is just some of what we saw in the dark of downtown Tucson on All Souls' Day....

 Waiting with the kids for the parade to start.

 An altar on a wagon to pull in the procession. They had photos of family and friends lost over the last several years taped to the outside and the Virgin Mary on the inside.

 Last-minute adjustments to the costumes.

OK...all of this and the procession has not even started yet!

Tami and I always get distracted by blinking plastic novelty items for sale at public events. So we ended up with these flashing hair bows. Or maybe they're butterflies? Anyway, they were really helpful for finding each other in the huge crowd in the dark. Also notice my cool necklace of skulls (I know, it's too little to see. Trust me, it's cool!)

The procession ended with the burning of a large urn filled with slips of paper carrying hopes, offerings, and wishes for those who have passed.

It started with a model of the urn...

  ...and strolling attendants in silver offering paper and pencil and collecting notes to burn later. I offered the names of two older ladies from my church who passed away this year and whom I've been missing. Both of them would have delighted in a night like this!

 A rolling altar in the form of a sailboat made of bones. My interpretation? The lady in the picture loved to sail and she died this year, and these are her children and they're missing her.

 A whole group in "house dresses" and pink bob-style wigs carrying large pictures of the family matron. Or maybe it was all for Celia Cruz? She had a pink wig like that.

 Good-bye to Neil Armstrong. I didn't capture it in a picture, but the astronauts had skeleton faces inside their helmets.

 Some bereaved pet owners commemorated their lost animals. Here, a dog.

 Speckles, the pet bunny.

 Maybe this cowboy lost his favorite horse this year. He built quite the contraption.

OK, and some people just made interesting stuff and marched in the parade.  Unless this girl really had a pet jelly fish.

 And some environmental politics--save the jaguar.

 And lots of Mexican-style skeletons and spooks...

 Alice and I saw something funny...I don't remember what exactly...but it could have been almost anything!

 This is the Seven Pipers band. They had a sign saying, "129 Days Until St. Patrick's Day." It's the whole American melting pot thing.

And there was so much more than this. And I probably only saw a third of it in the dark with the huge crowd.

So let me just close by saying how much I love Tucson! And I am dressing up next year!

Oh, and we did have Halloween first, just like the rest of the U.S.!

Here's Tami on Halloween dressed as a really cool guy from the '70's. You can tell it's authentic because she looks just like Ben Affleck as a 1970's CIA agent in "Argo." Also by the fake chest hair. Blecch!


  1. Ha, LOVE this! My brother-in-law(who lives in Phoenix) has been to this event a few times and loves it, but we never went when we lived in Tempe (which doesn't have much of a Mexican vibe at all, compared to Tucson.)In fact, we got our idea for Halloween costumes (that you commented on) from a photo of him dressed for dia de los Muertos in Tucson. Of course, we moved to San Antonio in 2005, which has an enormous Hispanic community and its own celebration as well. I taught at a catholic university there for several years with a large Mexican student population, and every year in late October the dia de los Muertos altar was put up in the hall leading to the chapel. all the members of the University's community/relatives who'd died in the past year were commemorated there, and it was quite a sight. It was the first 'real' (eg, not just put up to show people what one looked like) such display I'd seen. Ironically, after living for 6 years in a city with such a huge Mexican influence, it wasn't until we moved to Korea that we got the idea...we're a little slow like that. Looks like it was a great time, though. If I'm back in the US the next time you go, we shall have to meet up!

  2. You have the most interesting posts. And, I think this is one of your best. I learn much more traveling with you vicariously, than I do on my own. I'll never think of All Saints and All Souls days the same again!! Thanks for the great piece.

  3. Gracias, AC! Maybe it's because you're so often working when you travel and I am always just goofing off...The next time you are out in Arizona, we should try to meet up in person!

  4. There's a chance I will be there in the next month or so. I was based out of Richmond VA and now I am based out of Phoenix. And, I feel certain they will want me to pay homage to the mother ship soon. I'll let you know when and if you are not off on some fun expedition, may be we can get together!