At the intersection of 24th and Mission streets the loosely draped banners of papel picado connect the lampposts with a flutter of yellow, green, red, and blue. The lively corridor is animated by colorful remembrances of the dead. The ofrendas—or altars—overflow with portraits of the dearly departed, sugar skulls, flickering candles, flowers, food, poetry and love letters. The fragrance from a plume of burning sage fills the air.
A dozen Aztec dancers emerge from the curtain of smoke, moving to the rhythm of drums. It's not just any day in the Mission District; it's El Dia de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead — and this year, in the middle of a living pandemic, the celebration was more significant than ever for many, as it marked the first time since the onset of the COVID that people were able to celebrate in person and at this capacity.
Community members spilled out onto the street, their faces artfully painted to resemble skulls. Dressed in suits, gowns and floral crowns, participants also wore shells or other noisemakers to amplify the excitement.
Within Latinx culture, the belief is that on the Dia De Los Muertos, the spirits of those who have passed live through the altars built by grieving loved ones looking to heal. Activists from the community are hopeful that people from other cultures can also learn about this custom.
“The tradition in our culture is that we believe that people die three times: One, when they die; two, when they're buried; and three, when people forget about them,” said Susan Rojas.“ So, Day of the Dead allows for our loved ones' ancestors to never die because we always remember them and they can come and see us on that day and celebrate with us, and that’s what Día De Los Muertos is.” In her role as executive director of the Calle 24, which is the Mission District’s historical cultural district organization, Rojas' celebration of the holiday called on the community to honor women, children, trans, nonbinary, LGBTQ, bipoc who suffered in silence and lost their lives to violence — whether it was through hate crimes or domestic abuse.
“We heard a lot of stories about women and kids being abused during the pandemic while they were at home,” Rojas said. “We wanted to create this safe space for healing. We can shield our community from danger through our culture, through our transition, and we can lift our heads and say, 'no mas.' Regardless of what culture we are, it’s important that we come together and fight like hell for our people who are usually not heard.”
A community procession led by the Aztec dancers made their way from the Calle 24 demonstration to the Mission Cultural Center for the Latino Arts for the 35th Annual Day of the Dead Exhibit titled "Ni Tanto Ni Tan Muertos" — “Neither So Much, Nor So Dead,” which features a number of offerendas honoring iconic San Francisco-based artists who left a cultural legacy within their community.
The event's theme praises a resilient San Francisco that continues to move forward despite the death and disruption wrought by COVID-19.
Dancer (Jul. 13, 1920 - May 24, 2021)
Born Hannah Dorothy Schuman, this American choreographer and dancer helped redefine dance in postwar America. A pioneer of experimental movement she prided herself on breaking the rules of modern dance and blazing a path into artform’s postmodern era. In the 1950s, she established the San Francisco Dancers Workshop.
“The central drawing of Anna shows her in her typical yellow jacket, which became an icon in her dress,” artist Adrian Arias explains. “There is a blue image where Anna is drawn in a moment of her dance ‘The Prophetess,’ and she is related to the sea, to the waves of Sea Ranch. There are also two roses, one blue and one red, which represent Anna's connection with the beauty of nature and there is a drawing of a ball of wool, which is the way to symbolize a very important element in the practice of Anna, the Red Spot, the center of the body, from where the balance of our body and spirit is created.”
Poet (Dec. 13, 1933 - Aug. 22, 2021)
Born in New York City, Jack Hirschman started out as a copy editor for the Associated Press. His first contact with fame came from a letter written to him by Ernest Hemingway, published after Hemingway's death as "A Letter to a Young Writer." In the 1970s, Jack taught at UCLA and was fired for encouraging his students to resist the draft during the Vietnam War. He moved to North Beach soon after, where he wrote and published the first volume of his poetry, "A Correspondence of Americans," and was deeply involved in the literary scenes of Caffe Trieste and City Lights Bookstore. “When I first arrived in San Francisco in September 1999, my mother, who was living in the Bay Area at the time, had organized a poetry reading with Jack Hirschman and Jorge Argueta,” Arias says. “It seems that she and Jack had met at some reading at City Lights, and had spent some time having coffee in Trieste in North Beach. I couldn't believe that she was going to read poems alongside these two amazing poets. Meeting Jack was like meeting a superstar from the firmament of poets. The reading was at a gallery in La Mission and later at the Café Boheme, which for several years became a meeting place.”
Visual Artist (Nov. 1, 1941 - Sep. 3, 2021)
Yolanda López created different types of work, including conceptual art installations and political posters, but her 1978 painting "Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe" is the most acclaimed and reproduced. Her work has been widely disseminated in popular culture — appearing in art books, feminist stories, Chicano anthologies, as well as on T-shirts and people’s skin as tattoos. And she has inspired younger generations of Latina artists to rethink the Roman Catholic icon, a vision of the Virgin popular with Mexicans and Mexican Americans. “In 2003, working at the [Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts], I invented the Illusion Show, a gallery completely covered in white paper for artists to express themselves freely,” Arias explains.“Thanks to the initiative of René Yañez I invited Yolanda López and Rio Yañez to be part of that experience, and they created a wall together. There began a very powerful friendship.”
Meaghan Mitchell can be reached at [email protected]