Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Day of the Dead...Tucson's Way

Women dancing...faces painted white!
I think we have known about All Souls Day/Day of the Dead celebrations in communities in Mexico for many years.  The travel channel and National Geographic have images and stories about travelers going to remote places to eat and enjoy the company of people in a different country.  But little did we realize that we could experience these very things only a few miles from where we live here in Tucson.

Tucson is home to a very large Hispanic community and is just a little over an hours drive from the Mexican border.  The people bring a very different flavor to our city...different in that it is authentic and environmental.  This is not a "Mexican Restaurant on the corner" kind of place...a place that people have come to find a new life.  This is a place where the indigenous and Hispanic people lived long before the migration of northern Europeans and snow birds to the warm climate.  It is in many ways similar to visiting a more prosperous Mexico without ever going across the border.
Shops on 4th Street display traditional Day of the Dead collectibles.
Last night we drove to the University of Arizona district where the artsy 4th Street quietly became home to a procession the may have had up to 15,000 or more participants.  Many, many more lined the street to watch families walk by dressed in beautiful clothes with faces painted like skeletons.

This custom of celebrating death has been embraced by the Catholic church but actually dates back to 1800 BC when the indigenous people of Mexico began celebrating the "Day of the Dead."  Traditionally the celebration begins after midnight on October 31 at around 2:00 am when the families descend on cemeteries to clean graves and share food with the departed.  Because Mexico is a country of blended traditions, the Hispanic population has developed their own version of the prehistoric indigenous festival.  The All Souls Procession here in Tucson has borrowed from both celebrations.

It was not a "Mardi Gras" atmosphere in anyway.  But there was music, dancing and many types of puppets.  In a handout from San Antonio Missions National Park the tradition of making toys, especially puppets for children on this day was explained.
A thriving tradition of toy-making plays a central role in the Day of the Dead.  The popular skeleton puppet figure  may depict everyday subjects such as brides,and grooms, bicycle riders, or specific professions.
Living Puppet on Strings
...Who knows what makes skeleton toys funnier than toys that depict the living?  Maybe it's the surprise to the viewer of seeing the dead doing something lively and spirited that brings a chuckle to the most sober face.
Perhaps by making death more approachable through friendly images, like a dancing skeleton, people may begin to lose their fear of death at an early age and accept it as part of life.
The building of altars (offrenda) is a tradition practiced by many.  We see small altars in the front of homes as we drive through the countryside here in Arizona.  These altars usually display a picture of the deceased, brightly colored tissue paper with cut out designs, candles and perhaps food or items that symbolize the life of their loved one.  We actually saw one in the procession surrounded by what was probably family and friends.  
All forms of celebration denoted the act of remembering the departed loved ones.  A huge Aids Ribbon was carried by the gay community and other groups remember lives lost to violence and military deaths. Families pushed baby strollers and others carried pictures.  The procession wound it's way to the center of the city where the Grand Finale of Tucson's month long celebration was held.  We were one of the few that did not follow it to it's conclusion.  It was amazing!
I stopped and asked permission  to take a photo of a pair standing by the street.  I had to know...why do you do this?  The young couple said in unison, "For our lost family members".  I brought friends with us to see this event. We didn't quite believed what we were told about this unusual (in our world) procession until we heard the words come out of the couple's mouths.

Don't always be a tourist.  Blend in, participate, help.  Seeing yourself as a part of a community, even if you only stay for a part of the year, will give you a new perspective.  We are trying very hard to understand the city we come to live in for 6-7 month out of each year.  Tucson AZ is our other home.

We are coming to love this place more and more.  The culture of Tucson's people is becoming a part of our lives and we are richer for it.
Have a wonderful day.
I received this small book for children from my daughter on the day after we had attended the procession.  It is beautifully done with poetry in both English and Spanish.  It includes explanation about the tradition as well as how-to pages of things for children to do.  The Festival of Bones by Luis San Vicente.

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