A week after Oakland’s 80,000-strong Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead celebration, observers in San Francisco celebrated deceased loved ones during a traditional twilight procession from 24th Street and Bryant to Garfield Park, where people set up memorial altars decorated with flowers, candles, photographs, trinkets, art and food.
Attendees painted their faces as calaveras (skulls), played string music or formed drum circles, and constructed elaborate esqueletos (skeletons) and sculptures, including one of a skeleton riding a bike with flapping gold wings.
The celebration, derived from the holiday honoring the dead observed in Mexico, the American Southwest and parts of Latin America, started with a somber atmosphere, said Ethan Davidson, who has attended the event in San Francisco since the early ’90s. He said the night is usually a party filled with music and festive dancing, but that sometimes people forget the purpose of the holiday.
“It’s smaller, but it feels deeper,” he said.
The holiday traces it origins to the indigenous traditions of the Maya, Aztec, Olmec and other pre-Hispanic societies in Mesoamerica. After the Spanish conquest, the days honoring the dead were moved to Nov. 1 and 2 to correspond with Catholic All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days, and crucifixes and the devil were incorporated into its spiritual imagery.
For the Aztecs, according to Ladislao Loera, a Day of the Dead artist who authors a website about the holiday, skulls represented death and rebirth. Their celebrations were dedicated to Mictecacihuatl, the Lady of the Dead.
Día de los Muertos is a joyful time because death is seen as a transition to a higher state of consciousness, and the complement that allows life to flourish. Happy skeleton toys teach Mexican children from a young age not to fear death, but respect it, Loera wrote.
Mills senior Sophie Leininger described the altars as places of spiritual reflection, where people shared space to lay their mementos and contributed to community murals, but the areas between the altars are flirtatious and festive, “like a cocktail party.”
The music increased as the night went on, well past 10 p.m. The event was also political, as some participants screened films about political violence or brought campaign signs.
Lili Knobloch, a San Francisco resident, disliked the presence of political agendas. “It breaks up the ambiance of people paying respect to their family and loved ones who’ve passed away,” she said.
Davidson said the event always has political elements, falling near election time, and that it’s fitting, since American politics can often have life-or-death consequences.
Camille Collard of San Francisco appreciated the “strong sense of community, young and old, and all walks of life” represented at the event.
Todd Hawley, who was handing out candy with his fiancée as an esqueleto, comes to the event every year to be part of the community and “[to see] these amazing altars – all the time, energy, effort and love put into [them] to honor the memory of those that are gone.”
While European cultures have a phobia around death, he said, this holiday “allows us to say goodbye.”
Look for footage of the event at www.thecampanil.com/features.
With reporting by Melody Sage.