At first it was people from the neighborhoods who came to see the altars put together by the de la Raza artists. But eventually, word spread. "The exhibit proved very popular and the schools started coming around," Yañez remembers.
The altars were a way of talking about Mexican culture and the Galeria started to print lesson plans for teachers. Eventually Yañez organized a procession through the neighborhood, like the ones held in Mexico. The first year, which current procession organizer Juan Pablo tells me was 1978, attracted somewhere between 75 to a few hundred people. But that was going to change.
"It's the one thing that unites us, the cycle of life and death," Pablo said in a phone interview. The thousands who attend these days see far more than traditional Mexican spirituality, Pablo said, with Wiccans marching in the parade, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence granting indulgences, and tributes being paid to issues worse than old age and mortality. Last year, for example, a walking altar called attention to the 5,000 unsolved assassinations of women in the Mexican border town Juarez.
Any description of SF's festivities would be remiss if it didn't mention the influx of Burning Man culture, with its preponderance of elaborately-costumed young people, the stilters, and the skeletons.
They make for a visually stunning event but produce ambivalent cultural connotations. Local blogs have facetiously proclaimed that with the entrenched multiculturalism of SF's Dia, the holiday celebrations can be more appropriately titled "Day of the Dead Gringos."
Rio Yañez grew up during this evolution. "The neighborhood's changed so much, the parade is a reflection of that," he says. "It's a way of sharing culture. Even with all the drunk hipsters just having a good time marching, there's still a good community spirit."
That's not to say there isn't disagreement over how the holiday should be celebrated here. A dispute over who is the source of police complaints about overcrowding and public drunkenness led to a split between Juan Pablo's collective's march and the Marigold Project's altar installations in Garfield Park. "They want to create a party atmosphere, and that's not what it's about," Pablo said. "It's about honoring the dead.
"The procession is a moving target without any of the hassles of a fixed location," replies Kevin Mathieu, Marigold Project organizer.