A Celebration of Life

A Tucson tradition with roots south of the border brings a range of revelers to the Old Pueblo

by Tim Vanderpool

Dusk settles on the murmuring throng hundreds deep gathered along a stretch of Fourth Avenue. Scattered among this vast, annual assemblage of people known as the All Souls Procession are robed monks and masked dancers, seven-foot-tall calaveras, and solemn “Norsemen” toting a full-size boat, far removed from its watery grave. Someone coaxes melancholy chords from a rolling baby grand piano while another taps out dirges on his bicycle-mounted marimba.

We are honoring our dearly departed. And what an astonishing and creative display it is; twirlers and stilt-walkers flush in quixotic flames take to the streets under the ethereal white glow of LED lights.

A puppet of a winged crane is so large it takes a quorum to carry it. The towering papier mâché bird is trailed by a drum corps and a samba school and thirty musicians blowing their sorrowful souls into thirty bagpipes.

But the most riveting spectacle bears neither feet nor wheels. Rather, it’s the simple beauty of shared humanity that makes Tucson’s All Souls Procession so special. That same spirit infuses all of the Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead traditions on display throughout Tucson in October and November. The revelry ranges from the heavenly aroma of bustling Mexican panadería to massive, vibrant gatherings such as the All Souls Procession.

...in Mexico, the Spanish conquistadors encountered and attempted to eradicate such celebrations for the dead.

Tradition in the New Old Pueblo

All Souls Procession

Now, as night takes hold and the crowd falls into step, it becomes clear that All Souls and Día de Los Muertos are both about remembrance and a celebration of life.

Today, the All Souls Procession is coordinated by the nonprofit group Many Mouths One Stomach (MMOS), and has stretched into a weekend-long affair featuring black and white photo contests, and an elaborate continuation of Susan Johnson’s community altar.

But it actually begins with a flurry of activity weeks in advance. There are the two-month puppet and mask-making classes run by MMOS. And there are sessions, focusing on dance theatre, stilt-walking and aerial artistry, which culminate in a sweeping finale featuring 125 performers.

On Saturday, the Procession of Little Angels, a children’s gathering, unfolds on the plaza of downtown’s Armory Park, and the following day the Grand Procession fills entire streets for block after block. Some people join the parade; others are content to simply watch as the enormous outpouring passes by.

Now, as night takes hold and the crowd falls into step, it becomes clear that All Souls and Día de los Muertos are both about remembrance and a celebration of life.

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