In San Francisco, the Mission District has celebrated Day of the Dead every year since the early 70’s with altars in Garfield Park, serving as a community graveyard for the night and through art, music, other live performances and a walking procession. With the neighborhood in transition from rapid gentrification, will this vibrant culture rite continue? 2019’s Day of the Dead theme is Mazatl: Year of the Deer.
An Ancient Tradition
Día de los Muertos is a traditional Meso-American holiday dedicated to the ancestors. It celebrates death and the cycle of life, death and rebirth. The celebration returns to complete the cycle once again on November 2nd in San Francisco with the ritual procession along 24th and 25th Streets in the Mission and a climax ending with the glorious outdoor exhibit of altars in Garfield Park.
In Mexico, neighbors gather in local cemeteries to share food, music, and fun with their extended community, both living and departed. The celebration acknowledges that we still have a relationship with our ancestors and loved ones that have passed away.
Prior to Spanish colonization of Mexico in the 16th century, Day of the Dead celebration took place during summer, coinciding with the ninth month in the Aztec calendar. Gradually it was associated with October 31, November 1 and November 2 to coincide with the Western Christian triduum of Allhallowtide: All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day.
Offerings of Life and Light
Traditions connected with the holiday include building private altars called ofrendas, honoring the deceased using sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed, and visiting graves with these as gifts. Visitors also leave possessions of the deceased at the graves.
The Dia de los Muertos festivities were dedicated to the goddess known as the “Lady of the Dead,” the goddess Mictecacihuatl, corresponding to the modern La Calavera Catrina, or “The Elegant Skull,” created by José Guadalupe Posada as a parody of a Mexican upper-class female, a satirical portrait of those Mexican natives who, Posada felt, were aspiring to adopt European aristocratic traditions in the pre-revolution era.
Threat from Gentrification
For many years, the Mission has been the battleground for protests over evictions to make way for luxury condominiums and gentrification, tech shuttles that enable a new wealthy class to inhabit the Mission’s historically working class funky avenues. Mexican and Central American families have inhabited the narrow Victorians among a smattering of taquerias, bakeries, bars and auto mechanic shops. Yet, housing prices have gone haywire, with the neighborhood demographic changing, but will the traditions practiced at Day of the Dead continue without the people who pioneered the celebration? For now, Dia de los Muertos in the Mission continues with full expression…
Scenes from Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) San Francisco 2013 Mission District (compilation)
“The Mission is ground zero for the fight for the future of San Francisco,” said David Campos, the city supervisor who represents most of the nearly two-square-mile district. “People think San Francisco is an island of progressive thinking,” he said, but San Francisco “has the fastest-growing income inequality of any city in the nation,” he said, citing a Brookings Institution study. “Medium- and low-income people are being left behind,” Mr. Campos said.
Day of the Dead San Francisco Presents The Annual Festival of Altars happens every November 2. Procession begins 7pm at 22nd and Bryant, Public Altars in Garfield Park at 26th and Harrison, 4pm-11pm. Bring flowers, candles and mementos of loved ones to place on altars. This is an alcohol-free event.
Photos by Jack Eidt from 2015.
Updated 23 October 2019