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Down on the Farm: Dia de los Muertos

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Twenty-four years ago, Tucson artist Susan Kay Johnson decided to honor her recently-deceased father by organizing a small procession of her friends down Fourth Avenue on Dia de los Muertos, otherwise known as the Day of the Dead.

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The tradition of honoring the dead through putting on skeleton costumes and walking in a procession arose in Mexico and can be traced back to Aztec times. Of course, such processions are utterly absent in the dour, Protestant-permeated upper Midwest! But in funky Tucson, Johnson's idea took off.

Last Sunday, over 60,000 people from Arizona and around the world converged for the annual procession in downtown Tucson, an event now surrounded by a weekend full of activities.

This year, the procession started at Sixth Street and Sixth Avenue at 6 p.m.

Make of that what you wish.

As we walked towards the starting point, women of all ages in bridal gowns strolled down the street, their garb worn in honor of a Mexican woman named Catrina who was once painted as a skeleton wearing a wedding dress.

People carried mini-shrines made of shoe boxes containing pictures of dead relatives. Others foisted banners on poles in the air. On the banners were printed pictures of and tributes to the dead, with dates of birth and death.

Those were the participants whose costumes I understood. It seems people dressed as anything they pleased. Jesters. Monsters. Terradactyls. You were left to interpret the costumes and the dances on your own.

To this northerner, it seemed like Halloween combined with Memorial Day.

On the sidelines, I visited with a young woman who had moved to Tucson eight years ago. A native of Ohio, she was unfamiliar with Dias de los Muertos.  When she saw her first Day of the Dead procession and realized what it was about, she ran back to her apartment to get a picture of her late husband, who had recently drowned in a diving accident. She put on one of his hats, held his picture and walked in the parade. A professional psychologist, she said it was one of the profound experiences of her life. This year, she carried a picture of a dear friend, an artist, who died last month.

"She was an addict, but a deeply caring person," the young woman said, eager to share her friend's story.

Through the procession, specially-trained ambassadors armed with pens and paper loudly invited the crowd to write a note to their deceased loved ones. At the end of the parade, the collected notes end up in a huge urn, which is lifted high and lit on fire to a massive cheer.

The procession is utterly chaotic. People join and leave at will. There are three rivers of humanity. The main one moves down the middle of the street and goes the fastest. The two on either side eventually fold in behind the main procession and embark en masse towards the final urn burn. There really are no spectators. Everybody takes part.

The music is primal. Native drum groups. Chaotic, cacophonous bass bands. Mariachis. People on stilts playing fiddle, but not in any organized manner. As the tens-of-thousands throng along, there is a somberness––yet no shushing of children or anybody else who wants to make noise, for that matter.

Like so many Mexican festivals, Dia de los Muertos combines Catholicism with native traditions and whatever else anybody wants to add. Indeed, there were groups commemorating the dead in Iraq. Another group carried posters in honor of those who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. An unusually large group silently carried posters protesting the deaths of 10 people in Turkey last May in a protest against the Turkish government.

The most moving scenes, however, were the people carrying pictures of their recently deceased loved ones, some of them children. There was a dignity to their tributes, whether in a shoe box or on a banner. It was clear on their faces that commemorating their dead publicly, and with thousands of others in the same boat, was important to them.

In addition to the seventy-degree weather, observing my first Dia de los Muertos procession was a good reward for getting to Arizona a little earlier than usual.

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