Magical Night of Remembrance

To my extreme good fortune, Tucson Chamber Artists’ C Minor Mass concerts coincided with the weekend of Tucson’s All Souls Procession.

All Souls Procession

I’d only been to the procession once before, three years ago. It was my last fall living in Tucson and I was so amazed and moved by the experience that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t known more about it, and been attending, all of my seven years in Arizona. When I realized this fall that I’d be able to race from the last Mozart concert to downtown just in time for the procession, I bought some black and white face paint and threw it in my suitcase for the trip.

To understand what the All Soul’s Procession is, you really have to go. It was founded by artists in Tucson as performance art, creating new rituals to mourn and celebrate death. It has become an important festival in the life of Tucson, with 100,000 people walking and/or watching this year. People gather at sunset, paint their faces like Día de los Muertos skeletons, and process across town carrying photos and altars to loved ones who have passed. There are also fantastical, unbelievably creative floats, puppets, and costumes. Photos do the best job of explaining it, and here’s a blog with some wonderful pictures and descriptions.

My father had never been to the procession and wanted to check it out, so after my concert at Grace St. Paul’s Church, we dashed into the bride’s room to apply our makeup. There were people at the procession with much better makeup but we did okay (note for next time: spend more than $1 on your makeup).

All Souls Face Paint

Then we raced downtown, circumventing the closed streets with a clever pre-planned route. I did a reveal-nothing change on the sidewalk — middle school gym class taught me at least one useful thing — and transformed myself into a musical Catrina (thank you to this production of Rameau’s Platée, which I saw at the Santa Fe Opera several years ago, for the inspiration).

Muiscal catrina

It was a soft, warm night in Tucson. We positioned ourselves on a sidewalk a few blocks past the start of the procession so that we could see everything pass by. The All Souls Procession kicked off with the Spirit Group leading the way, carrying urns to collect scraps of paper with our names, remembrances and prayers written on them.

Spirit Group member

And then came everyone else, some in organized groups to remember specific people or bring attention to issues,

Nuclear victim remembrance

Others with floats or puppets (like this amazing cantilevered bee that was a statement about what’s happening to the honeybees in this country),

Bee puppet

and others just walking, faces painted, in remembrance. It’s an event that’s at once somber and festive. There are some musical groups that walk and certainly people are talking and greeting friends they spot along the way, but it’s not especially loud or rowdy. It’s a parade in the dark, but so much more than a parade.

To me the most amazing thing about the All Souls Procession is how community-based, democratic and untamed it is. The streets are closed to traffic, but there are no barricades along the route. The only police car I saw was the one that cleared the way at the beginning of the procession. Most people watch it all go by for a while, and then jump in, spectators becoming participants.

After about 45 minutes, my father and I joined the procession and were swept along the route to the finale grounds. Our prayers were added, along with everyone else’s, to the huge URN that was hoisted above the finale stage by a crane. Tucson’s amazing acrobatics-circus troupe, Flam Chen performed on stilts, dancing with fire, and swinging from giant draping scarves. And then the URN was set on fire, sending our wishes and remembrances into the sky as the stage was filled with flames and smoke.

URN in flames

It was an incredible night, and as moving as I remembered. I’m glad I shared it with my father. My emotions always ride high, just waiting for a chance to well up and overcome me. I guess being an easy crier is a curse of the artistic temperament. There were many moments in this year’s procession that made me tear up, but at least I didn’t smear my makeup like I did three years ago. I can’t wait to do it again, and I sure hope I’ll find myself in Tucson for the All Souls Procession next year.

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