photo feature + review | Dia de los Muertos in San Francisco, when the border between the living and the dead is at its thinnest



November 2nd is an important date in the Mexican calendar. Indeed, it is a commemoration holiday for all loved ones that have passed away. Latin American communities across the world celebrate Dia de los Muertos, including the one here in San Francisco’s Mission District. At 7 PM on the corner of 22nd and Bryant St, the procession begins as hundreds of people gather and walk together towards a final closing ritual that honors and remembers the lives friends, family and animals.


Dia de Muertos, Day of the Dead

Through music and art, this event celebrates the memory of our ancestors and those who have passed. The ceremony is celebrated throughout Mexico and in countries all over the world, particularly in cities with large Latin American populations such as San Francisco.

These spiritual festivities are divided in three days. As Frances Ann Day (1942-2010), explains in her book, Latina and Latino Voices in Literature, “On October 31, All Hallows Eve, the children make a children’s altar to invite the angelitos (spirit of dead infants) to come back for a visit. November 1st, is All Saints Day, and the adult spirits will come to visit. November 2nd is All Souls Day, when families go to cemetery to decorate the graves and tombs of their relatives.”

These celebrations are dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, which means, Lady of the Dead. She is known under the representation of La Calavera Catrina, one of the most popular figures of these traditional days. At the time of year, according to the culture, if you see a Monarch butterflies, it means, it’s the souls of ancestors who are returning to earth for their annual visit. It is a sign that many people consider as a protection from the other world. In 2008, UNESCO inscribed this day in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.





The Circle of Life

Contrary to what one might think, it isn’t a creepy or disrespectful holiday, but a real spiritual event, celebrating the life of the deceased. This event of reverence isn’t necessarily sad and somber, like the way most culture treat death. It’s an expression and celebration of profound communion, sharing, and charity where everyone present shows how they deal with grief. During this night full of many emotions, the message is to learn that the death isn’t an end, but just the beginning of a new chapter. We have to protect the memory of people who passed away, and keep it alive. It’s a beautiful lesson in life.

The walk is intense, as these painting faces without names accompanies us, the warmth of candles combines with the human warmth. Your heart is filled, feeling the presence of spirits. Scars open again, like a story that we can’t forget. The pain is here, but there is music that acts like a helping hand in our grief. Emotions are a bit heightened. Nevertheless there is no bashfulness. Life has to continue, though sometimes more difficult, than we expected. It’s the circle of life, a life full of obstacles that we must face.

In Loving Memory…

We walk together in the night towards this final ritual, droning out our prayers, droning up our distress. Every step we take is a spirit that we let fly away.

During the procession, people carry with them photographs, candles and Marigolds to honor the memory of a late person or even a pet. Their pain has a name, a face and a date. All of them remember the day where their lives changed forever. People embrace when the emotion become too intense. Sometimes a simple smile can cheer someone’s soul. This family event is more emotional when we see the number of children present, wearing costumes and makeup. They are quiet, but not afraid. Their eyes are a dive in the future, a helping hand that allows us to stray away into suffering.

The procession continues, people gather at Garfield Park, creating hundreds of personal altars. Messages are hung on the fence, just some words in loving memory of a loved one, many of them written by the child’s hand in tribute of a father, “I miss you Dad”, or a friend, “I am sorry Bella”. Grief has no age. It affects everybody, and we must never forget the lasting scars left by a brutal death. The music stopped, the night seems darker. The street are deserted.

The crowd goes back home, removing makeup and masks. Tonight these people added a new memory in the life of one so loved. In one year, for the next commemoration, there will be a new faces, new tributes, and new farewells. But even though people leave, their memories stay back, as a testimony, a strength that will allow us to move forward, and to get up again from our falls. They continue to protect and guide us, leaving the veil between our two world always open.