It’s been a few years since I have attended Dia de los Muertos altars at Garfield Park in San Francisco. The last time I went it felt a little Burning Man, enjoyable but less the event I thought it should be. The altars seemed larger than life, artful but some of them seemed more focused on the spectacle then creating a special memory of someone.
That time I was there I was conscious of the community attending the event. Was the event attended by white folks co-opting the holiday or was it for people of Mexican heritage? New transplants to San Francisco ready to drink beer and paint a skull face? What was the true meaning of this holiday? Did anyone know why they were painting their face like a skull? Which was the prettiest one? Were we able to transcend these details and get into the space of celebrating death, truly?
I went last night with somewhat fresh eyes. As I walked deep into 24th St. the Maracatu bloco had begun its procession through the neighborhood and I was glad to see they were still part of the evening’s festivities. While it’s music has a beautiful slow, hypnotic rhythm as far as I know it’s roots are with African slaves in Brazil and it’s not necessarily a dance for honoring death. I got to Galeria de la Raza, where the bomba group, Taller Taller Bombalele was performing traditional Puerto Rican song and dance.
Then there was the political element: a flatbed truck carrying a band playing a musical sound a la Carlos Santana (so San Francisco) and plastered with signs saying Yes on Prop I. The proposition people will vote on today in San Francisco, restricting the building of luxury condos and apartment buildings.
I made my way to Garfield Park with my white candle and took in the sights of the altars. This time my eyes saw more diversity in attendance. Seeing altars for Latino family members pleased me. I also saw an altar of a colleague’s friend’s son who was shot in the neighborhood for no reason.
The altars at Garfield Park are incredibly beautiful. Indeed it is a special event to be able to gather together outside, in ritual as a community to honor something so important. Interactive installations provide space for people to write their own messages to loved ones that are no longer with us.
I didn’t photograph too many altars or pictures of people dressed up. It feels inappropriate to me to take a picture of an altar of someone who has passed on. That seems personal, even though this is not a personal event. I also didn’t photo too many skull faces or Catrina outfit’s (Mexican name of the Lady of Death, associated with Dia de los Muertos) because while there were some beautiful ones, it’s not a costume contest and it’s not necessarily my holiday. It belongs to the people of that heritage. Given that I am sensitive to interrupting someone’s night for a photograph.
The political themes of the night were unavoidable which is not surprising considering the issues San Francisco is facing at the moment. Some of the altars were dedicated to physiological states, such as fear of change which were placed inside a labyrinth. While I was walking through it, I heard some people behind me say something about, “cultural appropriation and it’s disappointing.” I couldn’t be sure about what they were speaking of. Was it the labyrinth (Euro tradition) which had altars to parts of our psyche and not a Dia de los Muertos tradition they referred to? I don’t know what they were talking about it but it was said about something.
What is clear is that this event is a fusion of cultures and times and place but it has roots in Mesoamerica and that deserves respect.