Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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On November 2nd – exactly two days after the trick-or-treat and plastic fangs craze of Halloween, the Mexican Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Muertos) is both a spiritual journey and a celebration of life. Culminating in the Mission district around Garfield Park, the San Francisco Dia de Los Muertos Procession and Festival of Altars conjures macabre images of walking skeletons, giant puppet-like idols, painted skull faces and flickering candles on altars to the dead.
Add to that the fact that the festivities take place at night and you’ll understand why during many years I held off taking my girls. Not exactly kid stuff, I thought, they’ll be spooked. And yet I was puzzled by a few of my trusted friends who went to the festival with their kids. I followed their evening planning on Facebook and secretly envied their confidence. “What do they know that I don’t?” I wondered. Turns out I knew nothing.
When I took my young crew with another family. In many ways, it was a revelation, a discovery. Best of all, my girls didn’t see the sad and the macabre. They saw the lights, the candles, the costumes – and a deep way to remember loved ones.
We started off the evening with a Mexican meal – how could we not? At the foot of Bernal Heights, my friend Becky, her daughter Amelia and the three of us enjoyed an early dinner of quesadillas, tacos and burritos. Though it was rather standard fare for a dinner in that area, eating Mexican felt like the right thing to do that night – just like people eat Chinese before the Chinese New Year parade. Becky’s husband then dropped us at the corner of 21st and Treat and we walked to 24th and Treat.
At 7.30 pm the procession was already well under way. We had no problem finding a space to stand on the route of the procession and our three girls stood there in awe. Seas of lighted fabric jellyfish were followed by Aztec dancers which were followed by giant skeletons.
We saw a macabre bride whose dress was adorned with a garland of lights at the hem. We saw a baby in skeleton overall pushed in his stroller by his parents.
We saw a woman carrying an open suitcase full of votive candles and photographs. We saw Spanish dancers in elaborate costumes. It was a feast for the eyes and when the procession looked about over, we made an escape to Garfield Park to admire the Festival of Altars before the crowds arrived.
As much as we had been spectators along the procession, the festival was an open invitation to participate and share the memories of loved ones who had passed away. The best example of this memory-sharing was a series of long clothes line on which hundreds of white note cards hung with clothes pins.
Every card was a message to the person beyond, a message of love, grief and hope.
An open box contained blank note cards and markers so that every one could participate. Seeing the box, our girls immediately sat down and grabbed a marker. My girls wrote a note to their great-grand-mother. Our young friend Amelia wrote to a dog. It was all extremely sweet and I loved that our children wrote to a person or animal no longer of this world.
After that we sort of wandered around, passed a shrine to Steve Jobs, followed a small labyrinth celebrating the native peoples of California, walked under a floral arch and slowed down in front of bizarre animal-skull shrines or small altars with personal notes and candles.
The thing is, anybody can set up an altar to a loved one at Garfield Park. Anybody.
This is what the website says; “Making an altar for a loved one that has passed away can be a cathartic and healing experience that honors both the celebration of life and the grieving of death. If you would like to create a personal altar (roughly 1×1 foot) please read guidelines below and come to the Marigold Project information table near the Garfield Park club house on 11/2 before setting up.” [If you want to participate, click here for details.]
There were so many things to see that we could have stayed another hour but it was already late and we needed to get these kids to bed. At 9.30pm we walked away, passing more skull faces for whom the evening was probably only beginning. Ours was drawing to an end and somehow our heart felt lighter.