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Blog Posted in avatar   Jonathan Farrell's Blog

San Francisco's Mission District Celebrates the Cycle of Life

By Jonathan Farrell
Posted Oct 24, 2010 in
Here is an article I wrote back in 2006 about the "Day of the Dead" celebrations in San Francisco's Mission District. I was fascinated by so much history and background information that I never knew before. This article originally appeared in the Mission Dispatch Newspaper, San Francisco. See as follows....
As summer has turned to autumn the cycle of life moves along. This sense of the cycle of life is at the heart of Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead celebrations in the Mission District. This year a procession and dedication of altars will be on Nov. 2.
While the Dead of the Dead is sometimes associated with Halloween, it is important to note that Day of the Dead is distinctively Mesoamerican and has been celebrated for thousands of years, long before Europeans ever set sail for the Americas.
As part of Mexico's rich cultural life, Day of The Dead traces back to the Aztecs, Purepechas, and Totonacs peoples who inhabited the land for millennium after millennium. Like all ancient peoples worldwide, they were intricately connected to nature. The elaborate calendars they followed were a worldview that consisted of multiple layers of life and existence.
They saw themselves as part of a cycle of life that needed to be honored, respected and celebrated. Day of the Dead is simply a continuation of that ancestral linage which the Europeans were not able to extinguish when they colonized the Americas.
The Day of the Dead was originally celebrated for an entire month in summer, around late July or early August. Yet when the Spanish-European influence dominated the region, the celebration was banned and then later incorporated. The celebration honored ancestors but also invoked a complex pantheon of deities.
This offended and challenged the European who held the indigenous peoples oppressed and conquered in low-esteem. In an effort to convert the population, the celebration was moved to coincide with Catholicism and its commemoration of the Feast of All Saint's and of All Souls on Nov. 1 and 2.
As the celebration evolved over time under Catholicism, the festivities changed in theological invocation. Those that had been presided over by the goddess Mictecacihuatl known as the “Lady of the Dead,” were then ascribed to the Virgin Mary in the form of the Virgen de Guadalupe.
The Day of the Dead is celebrated in different ways throughout Mexico and surrounding areas. Basically the people remember their loved ones who have died. The decorating of gravesites or the building of altars (ofrendas) to honor the dead is most common. This also includes processions and festive gatherings.
Since the 1970's the Mission District has celebrated the Day of The Dead with the building of altars and a procession. This year as in years past, El Colectivo del Rescate Cultural and The Marigold Project will be coordinating the celebration that draws over 20,000 people each year.
Juan Pablo Gutierrez has been organizing the procession since 1980. He said that Ralph Maradiaga and René Yañez founded the procession for the Mission District in the 1970s.
Yañez works as the Special Projects coordinator with SoMarts Cultural Center in San Francisco and Maradiaga since deceased was the founder of the Gallería de La Raza on 24th Street.
“Back then the procession was about 75 to 100 people walking around the block. I took over for them and each year it has been growing in the thousands making it one of the largest procession celebrations in the United States,” said Gutierrez. The two groups work separately and are made up of volunteers.
His main concern over the years has been keeping the focus spiritual - hence the name of his group, (in English) The Rescue Culture Collective. The procession this year is dedicated to the Aztec deity named Ometeotl.
The procession takes lots of planning - about a year in advance. Permits must be obtained and volunteers are needed.
”Usually I start planning for the procession in January, doing research and conducting workshops,” said Gutierrez. The selection of a deity and theme for each year is based upon two main sources, the Aztec Calendar - book of days and the Borgia Codex.
The codex is one of the many pictorial-hieroglyphic books or writings by the Aztecs. Gutierrez pointed out that much of the writings were destroyed or lost at the hands of the Catholic priests who viewed the work as devilish.
To those who celebrate the Day of the Dead, the honoring of deities and the ancestors is not devilish. Much of what ancient peoples like the Aztec understood about complexities and what seemed to them the duality of creation have been misconceived by modern thoughts. Archaeologists and researchers are just now rediscovering this as more excavations of ancient sites are unfolding.
Setting out to honor culture not sell it. Gutierrez said, “We did not want the procession and Day of the Dead celebration to become a pumped up hybrid thing.” Noting as he did that other celebrations in the Mission like Cinco de Mayo get “sponsored by corporations to sell beer (and merchandise),” said Gutierrez.
“We don't accept any corporate money. We simply want to honor the dead,” said Gutierrez. “This is why the celebration in the Mission attracts people. “All cultures have something to honor the dead in their traditions,” added Gutierrez.
Rosa De Anda has been coordinating the making of the altars for the celebration for the past 14 years. “It is a Mesoamerican holiday, not just a parade or street fair,” she said.
“Celebrated in many ways throughout Mexico (and the surrounding regions) it is basically a celebration to honor the cycle of life, and death is part of the cycle,” said De Anda.
Not to be confused with the macabre or the morbid as often is expressed with Halloween, Day of the Dead is both solemn and joyful. “The celebration is peaceful,” she said.
“What’s crucial is drawing people into the celebration of life and mortality. We (in our daily lives) often forget about the cycle of life,” said De Anda. “We must remind ourselves of the full circle,” she added.
Siouxsie Oki has been working with The Marigold Project (sponsored in part by the SF Arts Commission and the Mission Merchants Association) for the past six years.
Oki noted that the group responsible for the five altars took its name from the marigold. The marigold is the traditional flower for the Day of the Dead. Prized for its brightness and fragrance, in Aztec times it was called the cempasuchil, or as some historical sources cite (zempoaxochitl) “the flower of 400 lives.”
Oki never tires of the event as each year she looks forward to it. “My experience been incredible,” she said. “To see people respond so differently to death than in ordinary life. The celebration of life and the communion with the other side is very profound, rather than holding on to sadness,” said Oki.
Despite the recent construction that is going on at Garfield Park where the procession ends and the altars are placed, “everything will be pretty much the same,” Oki said.
The re-routing of the procession and omitting the passing thru Balmy Alley was “strictly for safety reasons.” De Anda and others were concerned that the closing of the alley to the procession was “a political issue.” And that the San Francisco Police were being “over-controlling.”
Yet speaking on behalf of SFPD Sergeant Mike Solomon said, “I understand how passionate people are about the murals that are in that alley. But we don't use that alley for the procession anymore because there are just too many people.”
As someone who helps to coordinate events in the Mission for the SF Police Dept. Solomon wanted to make clear, “we are just trying to help. With so many people pouring in to the neighborhood for the event, we have to plan accordingly,” said Solomon.
Gutierrez has been very pleased with the help provided by the SFPD for the procession. He also wanted to thank the Mission Cultural Center for helping with the publicity of the event.
The route will begin at 7: PM on the corner of 24th & Bryant Streets.
Those interested in helping with the altars contact: The Marigold Project at (415) 595-5558 or visit:
Final details about the precession will be posted when they become available.
For more information about The Day of the Dead Procession in the Mission District visit the Marigold Project web site or the Mission Cultural Center web site at: