Noche de los Muertos on the Day of the Dead
San Francisco, California
We are pressed, our backs to the wall, in Balmy Alley, a bottleneck of a back street in San Francisco’s Mission District, as the dead drift by.
Skeletons on stilts, in bridal gowns, playing drums in steel bands – Los Muertos, the Dead – proceed in almost single-file procession through a cramped alleyway that feels like the birth canal to another world.
We are skeletons too. My husband, Lowry, and our friend, Jeff, are tall, gaunt, black-caped and spectral. The white markings on the chest of Lowry’s black shirt suggest a rib cage. Jeff’s black gloves are spidered with bones. Earlier in the evening, at a table in the window of a Yucatecan restaurant, I used grease crayons in white, black and red to hollow out eyes and noses and widen grins, painting our faces like skulls as passers-by pointed and gawked.
San Francisco’s Dia de los Muertos
Every year on the heels of Halloween, the Dia de los Muertos Procession – part of a celebration that fuses Aztec beliefs in death and afterlife with the Christian Day of All Saints – sets forth from the corner of 24th and Bryant in the Mission. This is, in many ways, the spiritual heart of San Francisco. Mission Dolores, where Franciscan fathers founded what is today California’s oldest intact mission, is a short walk away, and much of this area still retains its alluring blend of Old and New World ritual.
More than 10,000 people crowd the crossroads on the night of this supernatural juncture, and yet the scene is oddly subdued, laced with a potent mix of reverence and expectation. Around his neck, Jeff wears a photo of his brother. Many people carry photographs or remembrances of lost loved ones. In my heart I hold a picture of my mother, who died a few months before. My votive candle, or velador, which I purchased at the little store adjacent to the Galeria del la Raza, is tall and sparkled with red. It has a picture of a heart painted upon it, and it says, corazon, the word for heart in Spanish. In preparation for this night, the shelves of the shop are populated with skeletons. There are white sugar skulls dressed in hot colors, devil and skull rattles made out of papier-mache, and brightly dyed mesh and oilcloth bags bearing images of Frida Kahlo, Anima Sola, La Catrina, the Virgen de Guadalupe and other popular icons. There are femur-trimmed picture frames, books about the Day of the Dead and row upon row of gorgeously embellished velas.
Night of the Dead
People flow into the intersection, greetings exchanged in murmurs. Lowry and I spot Kara, John and their beautiful (more…)