“It’s a San Francisco tradition, you really must go,” a friend says while talking about the Dia de los Muertos. To be honest, I have only fuzzy recollection about the significance of the celebration. A quick internet search reminds me: it’s about honoring ancestors and the recently deceased. Given my study of shamanism, I’m excited to experience this cortege.
It takes place in the Mission – the vibrant latin neighborhood – which is sandwiched between downtown, Bernal Heights and the Castro. In it’s day, the Mission was a scary place. Not so much any more – experimental restaurants and sheik bars butt elbows with kitschy corner markets and cheap clothiers. Colorful wall murals dominate the sides of the brick buildings and metal security gates. Old theaters invoke an earlier era with names like ‘The Latin,’ ‘The New Mission,’ ‘The Valencia.‘ Some are still abandoned and decrepit, others restored. It’s a fitting location for such an affair.
On the streets, I encounter skeletons riding bikes, boarding busses, hailing cabs and walking next to me. They are dressed to the nines in black and white funeral outfits, reminiscent of prom dresses and rented tuxedos. They carry candles and sepia photos of loved ones. The veil between this reality and the spirit world is thin tonight.
At the processional area, decorated banners shoot up into the night air, which is thick with incense smoke. Hummingbird, snake, rat, wolf. The drumbeat starts. Rat tat tat tat, tat tat tat tat. Rat tat tat tat, tat tat tat tat. Dancers stomp; beads and bulbs around their ankles rain down on the pavement: Schwoo, schwoo, schwoo. Schwoo, schwoo, schwoo. Feathers and totems create a dizzying display of color in the sterile streetlight. A circle this way, then that. In unison, then separately invoking the spirit; they honor those who have come before.
Absorbing the intersection of art & movement, life & death, I realize that life today is truly a gift, given by our predecessors. They imagined and built this world. They passed family stories and culture down through the generations. They had the vision of a better life for their children and descendants. They made it possible for me – for everyone next to me – to walk down this street tonight. They connect me to the beginning of time and the end. Through them, I have life.
It’s a good opportunity to contemplate death. It was only nineteen months ago that I attempted to take my life for the second time. I almost succeeded, then spent eight days in a psychiatric ward followed by another rehab. Upon reflection, I don’t think I really wanted to die, I just no longer wanted to live being who I was. My attitude has changed . . . dramatically. Today I choose to live fully and participate in the creation of a new dream for myself and the planet. I no longer sit on the bench and watch the world go by. I can think of no greater honor to my lineage than that.
The procession makes its way up 24th Street then turns onto Mission. It’s more crowed and the pictures I take now have other people’s cameras in them. The crowd makes its way towards 22nd. I leave them there, heading the opposite way into the Castro, where my car and then a good night’s sleep awaits. Before the drumbeat fades, I set the intention to honor my ancestors – not only on this day, but often.