On November 2nd I attended the Día De Los Muertos celebration in the Mission District. Streets were filled as we witnessed processions, saw altars and art installation, where Marigold flowers abounded. We also stopped by the Mission Cultural Center to view the “Flight of the Ancestors” exhibit. I have attached some photos of both the procession, ceremonies at Garfield Park and the art exhibit. I hope that this reflective paper entertains you the reader and that you experience Día De Los Muertos on the Mission District next year.
You hear the war drums long before you see the opponent on the field. Elaborate dances and tradition carried out prior to ceremonial combat. A dance with ancestral spirits, to bring honor and success in the coming tests… We heard the procession long before we saw them. Walking up Mission street toward 25th street. By 20th we heard the drums thundering in the distance. By 21st I could see the banners waving in the distance. By 22nd street they were upon us. Men and woman adorned in Aztec dress, dancing, their movements coordinated and smooth. They were followed immediately by a horde of men and woman all adorned in black, many. A face painted. We stopped, watching, listening, breathing. No words were exchanged, but we knew, without knowing. We joined the procession lockstep and continued our march alongside this banner of warriors and shamans, lay peoples and artists. I can not say for how long we marched, because time was different then, like sand squeezing itself through an hourglass.
The spell broke and we continued our pilgrimage down Mission street back toward our original destination. Leaving drum and banner and black cloak behind us. We came upon a second group on the march. This group entirely clad in white, a solid concise unit of drum beats and skirt shakes. We stopped and chanted and swayed our hips. How beautiful a procession, a succession of Aztec, of black-clad skeletons and white adorned pilgrims. We continued our walk up Mission street, the air buzzing. We arrive to Mission Cultural Center, we slipped in and up the stairs to the art installations. The art installation was beautiful. Themes of migration and inheritance. An inheritance of ancestors who took flight in life and who take flight once more in death. I noticed the color motifs of marigolds and monarch butterflies. This is impactful for me as my grandfather me visits me in my dreams and in my wakeful hours in one of two forms. He takes on the form of monarch butterflies or as a blue jay. This thought ran through my veins when I saw this exhibit, and at that moment I knew it to be true. I search for deeper meaning to the art and the installation. Perhaps art itself is enough, just how you and I are enough. Maybe I do not need to write a dissertation detailing the parallels of migration, deportation, the day of the dead and ancestral flight. Perhaps I can pay witness to the divinity reflected in the work, internalize it, drink my fill of it and carry on different now, more awake. I could write you a paper on the themes of this art exhibit, but I think that would miss the point.
Our pilgrimage ended at Garfield Park. Ofrendas (altars) adorned the grass, alongside candles and pan de muerte and loved ones. We saw art, and costumes, we felt the drum beats march in place as the white-robed pilgrims held church there, in that place, lockstep. We swayed and hummed, and smelled copal. We held peace in our spirit and let the feeling sink through us for a time. Then we left. No rhyme or reason, we left because the time had come, we had drank our fill and left. We left to let the spirits continue their party waking and thriving here on Earth , on this day.
I wonder what visitors from another planet would think of our elaborate costume and dress, dance and song. Human culture is capable of such depth a weight. American (United States) centrism, or this idea of American exceptionalism would have us believe that there exist only one correct option, the “American way”. I would argue that the Día De Los Muertos celebration is an example of a proper counterpoint, a different perspective. In many ways Death is obsessed over in this country, but it is also shamed. Día De Los Muertos while intimately tied to the aspects of death is just as much a celebration of Life. We see an aspect of duality, in the balance struck between two fundamental forces in life. The theme of reciprocity, of providing favorite foods and drink, alters for the dead is a practice still carried on. Many Latino family household structures have multi generational Members of the same family living in it at the same time. This is not stereotypically “American”. I think that a sense of family and care, a responsibility and support for and from the past is rooted in our culture and thus emulated in many of our celebrations. Above all else I praise this, a celebration of life even in death.
I am grateful that this year I was finally able to attend. I have heard of this celebration for many years but this was the first time in which I was able to attend. It is powerful and refreshing to see community out in full strength and spirit. I hope to continue to participate in such activities in the coming years. Most of all, I believe that I will begin to hold a proper ofrenda in my home every year for those loved and lost. I grew up with an ofrenda for my grandfather, but this was an everyday affair. I wish to continue a tradition rooted in respect, reciprocity, and duality in my home until the end of my days or the end of this 5th sun. Whichever comes first.