How a Mexican tradition came to be our own
ARTS AND CULTURE Rene Yañez, the godfather of San Francisco's Dia de los Muertos, is showing off the art for his new 3-D altar. The artist is hardly one to adhere to traditions, though he played a large role in creating one of the city's most distinctive and popular interpretations of another country's cultural celebrations.
Yañez's elastic sense of the holiday's expression mirrors the way his city has interpreted the Mexican holiday. Traditionally, Dia de los Muertos marks the time of year when the boundaries of the dead and living blur. Towns south of the border celebrate the day (which was synced with All Saint's Day by the Catholic Church to capitalize on the cultural resonance of an indigenous celebration) by decorating the graves of loved ones with favorite treats and trinkets of those who've passed on.
But kicking the bucket doesn't preclude your party pass on Dia de los Muertos. "The whole point of Day of the Dead is that we're honoring death but mocking it," says Martha Rodriguez, a Mexico City musician who curates the Dia de los Muertos San Francisco Symphony family concert that celebrates this year's centennial of the Mexican Revolution.
"Through all the uprisings and death, there's always space for fun," Rodriguez says. "That's kind of how Mexicans survive — we do not stop celebrating."
Perhaps it's the mix of spiritual connection, gravity, and levity — not to mention the stylin' calaveras and brightly-colored floral iconography — that has made the celebration resonate here. The city hosts what is arguably the largest Muertos festivities in the country, featuring altar displays at SOMArts, the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, and Garfield Park, as well as a procession that organizers expect to attract 100,000 participants.
Yañez and son Rio are the curators of the SOMArts' epic yearly altar installation — an atmospheric production that transforms SOMArts' drafty main hall into a series of reflective spaces that pay homage to fallen family members, casualties of natural disasters, manmade conflict, and even beloved gatos who have gone to that litter box in the sky.
The elder Yañez's involvement with SF Dia-ing goes back to the early 1970s when he was artistic director at Mission's Galeria de la Raza, a time when the neighborhood was absorbing political exiles from political strife in South and Central America. A way to observe the day of remembrance was needed. "We talked about creating a ritual, a ceremonial exhibit," he says.
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.
Maybe nothing is ever completely at rest in a San Francisco — even the dead are caught in the winds of our city's ongoing envisioning of the our culture's true nature.