My brother, Roger, had been ill, but I was not expecting this news.
The tram glided over rails toward the Mercado stop where the procession ends and the ceremony begins. The veil between the world thinned, time and place lost meaning. I was a fifty-something Tucsonan and an Indiana farm girl. Time and space that surrounded our brother-sister interactions—arguments, games of “Cowboys and Indians” and a poignant reunion in a VA hospital—all coexisted and swirled together into an image that broke my heart.
After reading the text, I turned away from other passengers. The concept of multiple worlds reflected in the glass. I was grateful for all the others with whom I could mourn. I was in a place of public comfort, even after hearing such news. The universe had wrapped her arms around me and whispered, "I timed it this way to help you."
Many cultures observe a time of remembrance in the autumn, after harvest, before the cold darkness of winter descends. The world is said to then be closest to the netherworld of the deceased. Halloween plays with this idea. All Souls Day observances — quite distinct from Halloween festivities — pay respect to the idea.
Tucson is influenced by Day of the Dead, or All Souls Day, observances celebrated in Mexico and areas where indigenous beliefs blend traditional ritual with Catholicism. Day of the Day, All Souls Eve and All Saints Day are Nov. 1 and 2. Families gather together at cemeteries and decorate the graves of loved ones with brightly colored flowers, candles, decorated portraits and confections such as florally-decorated sugar skulls.
The All Souls Procession is not a parade, nor Día de los Muertos. It has no single religious affiliation; it is not Burning Man. It is serious, but there is joy among solemnity. It mourns people and ideas.
In 1990, Susan Johnson mourned the death of her father. She needed to express her grief through performance. A small number of her friends joined her. The next year, the procession was held again — and the next. Each year, it grows. In 2014, its twenty-fifth year, 90,000 people participated. The procession fills a need our culture too often denies.
Dance, theater, music and mourning? Yes. All of these and more.
The procession is open to everyone. People assemble; the procession starts at sunset. Carrying photos of lost loved ones and art pieces commemorating loss, individuals in masks with painted faces, drumming, chanting and dancing, proceed slowly through the downtown area, where spectators crowd sidewalks, many deep, along the route. Spectators join the procession. It is authentic, non-commercial, individual and universal.
An urn at the head of the procession collects written prayers and words of love and remembrance along the route. Backdrops above the stages show images of lost loved ones until the procession arrives. Music and dance fill the stage. The urn, atop scaffolding, burns at the climax of the ceremony.
Cultural expression in Tucson, be it Spanish, Mexican, O’odham, Apache, Yaqui, Chinese, Irish or Anglo, is the norm. Before there was Tucson, there was Cuk Ṣon, a place at the base of the black mountain. First Peoples walked along our rivers for thousands of years. The rivers no longer flow, but we are still a community. We come out together to express, acknowledge, mourn, celebrate, commemorate, inspire and be inspired by transition, all that has come before, personal loss, personal growth and our connectedness. We welcome those who want to participate. Our home at the base of black mountain is blessed with a blending of cultures. It echoes with 10,000 years of souls who have passed through.
The Old Pueblo is an old soul. Fittingly, it honors All Souls.
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