The Walking Dead Celebrate in the Mission
November 7, 2006 11:33 AM
Thursday’s “Day of the Dead” procession in the Mission District had all the elements normally expected from San Francisco street parades – children carried on shoulders, dressed up dogs, music, flowers, political signs, cross-dressing and a few half-naked people – the difference being that it was after dark and many of them were dressed like the dead.
Filling the wet streets at just before 7 p.m., participants in the processional met at the corner of 24th Street and Bryant under clouded skies. Rousing the crowd was a band of the walking dead. Musicians dressed in classic “Dia de Los Muertos” style played dozens of drums, bells and rattles.
Surrounded by onlookers, costumed and not, most with cameras ready to capture the lively event, the band stepped methodically back and forth in garb ranging from a torn suit, to all black and brightly colored dresses. Black and white paint that imitated the faces of skeletons and a plethora of traditional marigolds were worn on heads and around necks.
The procession began at 7:15 p.m. as a drizzle began and clouds of incense rose, as did the excitement of those participating in the short, circuitous walk. Many with candles in hand, the crowd cried out as they began moving forward, evoking the intention of the procession – celebrating and honoring the dead.
Zuceli Sedar, 37, her 10-year-old daughter, and a friend, watched the procession as it proceeded past 25th and Balmy streets. All three had black and white painted skeleton faces and broad smiles as they pointed to other costumed participants.
“It’s very San Franciscan,” Sedar said, describing the ritual as “very peculiar” to her native Guatemala, where she said her family’s tradition was to visit the cemetery on All Saints Day.
Sedar said that for the last 15 years she hasn’t missed the event. “As long as it’s not too cold or rainy,” she said.
Some Mission District residents, who live on the streets along the procession’s route, hung out their windows watching the spectacle. Others participated by opening their garages and gates to display altars they had built to honor loved ones, with candles, photographs and other traditional decorations.
The three-day holiday springs from the native-Mexican tradition of celebrating the dead. It begins Oct. 31 and lasts through Nov. 2, coinciding with All Saints and All Souls day, as celebrated in the Catholic tradition.
According to the Web site for the Rescue Culture Collective, the organization that lead the free public event, the Day of the Dead procession has been celebrated in San Francisco for 26 years with the help and participation of several local organizations.
Stopping periodically for a drum rally or shouts from the crowd, the procession included an eclectic marching band, dressed in all white, and led by a handful of white-clad dancers. Walking about a dozen blocks over a two-hour period, the procession started and ended later than planned.
Newcomers to the Day of the Dead celebration included SF State math graduate Roxanne Montoya, 24, who, as a five-year San Francisco resident, rallied her family in Santa Clara to drive up for the event.
Carrying red flowers she made from tissue paper, wire and a little electrical tape, Montoya said she and her family enjoyed the event.
“My grandma likes the drums and my nephew likes the costumes,” she said.
“I just like that it’s a happy celebration,” Laura Brown, 28, said of her experience, as she watched the procession pass her and her boyfriend, Nessie Vanloan, 30, who held two sugar skulls in a plastic take-out container.
Bought from one of the many vendors selling the traditional item in the Mission that night, the small sugar-made skulls were customized to have Vanloan’s deceased grandparents’ names written on their foreheads.
Saying that he sees the tradition as an alternative to the fear of death that comes with Halloween, Vanloan planned to keep the skulls at home to be put with one he bought last year for his late sister.
A banjo player alongside the procession, Sean Lee, 33, called himself a “one man banjo” and joined the procession dressed in a black suit, with a skeleton mask, bowler hat and bone gloves. He was joined with an equally costumed woman who donned a black veil and dress while playing finger cymbals.
There were more than 1,000 people in attendance, and maybe as many as 2,000, according to Rico Castillo, one of many San Francisco police officers standing near 24th Street and Van Ness, he added that the crowd might have been larger than usual despite the rain.
A somber occasion for some, a 45-year-old counselor who goes by the name “Mouse,” carried a small altar he made for his mother, who died last month. He made the altar from objects he gathered at the Goodwill store.
He laid a silky piece of fabric over a pillow, with a candle, a black skull he bought in Oaxaca, and a framed photo of his mother laid against his chest, as friends greeted him with their condolences.
Unlike the violence that erupted in the Castro District during the Halloween celebration two days earlier, no incidents occurred, according to another officer, when the procession was long over at 10 p.m., and the celebration was continued in Garfield Park.
At the stopping point for the procession, which ended after nearly two hours, several altars were built under the trees and on the grounds of the park, where the crowd gathered to simply view them or make offerings to the dead, as is traditional of the holiday.
From small cardboard boxes set on the bike racks, to elaborate multi-tiered alters under white tents, the park was filled with altars that included a mix of brightly colored imagery. From a tapestry of the Last Supper, to Tibetan prayer flags, the altars were decorated with candle-lit photos and relics in remembrance of the dead.
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