The single performance of one grieving daughter inspired the grassroots parade extravaganza known as Tucson’s All Souls Procession.
That was 25 years ago. Today, the event includes more than 100 performers and attracts thousands of participants from across the city, nation and world.
The weekend-long celebration of events and workshops concludes tonight with a pilgrimage of face-painted skeletons, costumed walkers, personalized altars, floats and giant puppets before its signature pyrotechnical, acrobatic, music-filled finale.
Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day refer to the same two-day tradition on Nov. 1 and 2, when families and friends refurbish gravesites and build altars with offerings for deceased loved ones.
Tucson’s All Souls Procession is a variation of these holidays, rich with rituals of honoring, releasing and embracing those who have passed through a celebration of living.
The event is a chance to not only grieve, but to celebrate.
“This is an opportunity for me to express and let go of sadness, frustrations and misunderstandings,” said Denise Snyder Lopez who will walk for her grandparents and a recently deceased childhood friend.
“I think it’s healthy to celebrate the triumphs and breakthroughs in life by visiting the sadness, mourning what once was,” she added.
“It’s a very moving event that combines a festive atmosphere with opportunity to reflect on friends, families, pets, causes and organizations,” said Carl Hanni, who helps organize the after party and has been a participant in the procession since 2004.
Last year’s route survives for another year.
The procession begins at East Sixth Street and North Sixth Avenue and ends at the Mercado San Agustin, west of Interstate 10.
The expected development of the Mercado San Agustin District will force the procession and finale to adjust next year, just as it has every three or four years, said Nadia Hagen, one of the organizers of the event.
Hopes are high for permanent festival grounds just west of Mercado San Agustin, she added.
The streetcar will extend its hours to 11 p.m. during the procession. Participants can expect stop-and-go travel.
Susan Johnson and Mykl Wells conceived the event in 1990.
Wells observed the Día de los Muertos traditions while he lived in Guanajuato, Mexico, and wanted to bring it to Tucson when he moved back.
The idea came to life when Johnson’s father passed that year, sparking her performance.
Together with seven others disguised in leather masks — custom-made by Johnson — they wandered downtown, unintentionally scaring onlookers, recalled Wells.
The first birthday of the procession in 1991 marked the first official All Souls Procession.
That year, a small grant from the city of Tucson helped fund workshops and expand the procession to a crowd of 30 to 40 people, said Wells.
Johnson’s performance signified the start of a spiritual tradition that has attracted people from across the world.
Wells calls her the “Mother of All Souls.”
The weekend is largely organized by Hagen and Paul Weir, co-founders of the procession’s sponsoring organization, Many Mouths One Stomach .
As artistic director of Flam Chen, Hagen coordinates such activities as performances, costumes and scheduling for the event.
Weir works as the technical director in charge of the “hard things,” said Hagen. He organizes the logistics of the finale, such as special effects, lighting, sound and assembly of the stage.
Many Mouths One Stomach — a Tucson-based collective of artists, teachers and community activists — leads sponsorship and fundraising for the event, which is free of big funding and commercial endorsements.
According to its Facebook page, 70 percent of funding for the procession comes from individual and small business donations.
“Donors shifted mentality from ‘I sell a product to a customer’ to ‘I’m engaged in an economic model for my community’,” Hagen said.
Community involvement is widespread, coming from the private, business and government sectors.
While giving is generous, more is always welcome.
“If everyone gave one dollar, it would pay for the entire procession in one night,” said Jhon Sanders, a 7-year volunteer and director of the Procession of Little Angels.
Sanders, director of Hungry Ghosts, a 24-person busker crew, works with University Pedi-Cabs to collect funds for the event throughout the procession.
Technology has caught up with the event.
The All Souls Procession allows people to participate from anywhere in the world by sharing photos and stories in a “This is Why We Walk” album on its Facebook page.
Submissions to the online altar tell the emotional and diverse stories of family members, friends, pets and loved-ones who remember those dear to them.
Among those who have contributed to the virtual altar:
- Jean Hardy, who posted a picture of her daughter Violet and says she is coming from Maine to honor her.
- Bernadette Cardwell Broomall’s dog, Maxwell Gizmo Cardwell, is part of the tribute.
- And Ambrosia Von Ludwick posted that she will walk for her friend Veronica Garcia, who showed her “the true meaning of courage and selflessness” as she battled cancer.
On the All Souls Procession website you can also upload photos and stories to “The Ancestor Project,” designed to memorialize our ancestors. The entries will become a slideshow projected on walls of buildings throughout the procession.
The archive grows every year and serves as a digital altar.
Over several workshops last year, the Mark Allen Cravens Foundation, which is dedicated to reducing motorcycle injuries and deaths, created a 30-foot-tall, green, blue, and white papier-mâché Kawasaki street bike for the procession. It will make another appearance this year.
Jeffrey Scott Brown and others will carry a 100-foot-long red AIDS ribbon they made in the workshops to honor those who have succumbed to the disease.
Their creations serve as symbols of people, important causes and organizations. Workshop director Wells held 22 workshops throughout the year to help participants make their memorials, altars, floats and sometimes-wacky creations.
Wells introduced the “Workshop Roadshow” this year. He traveled with a team of volunteers to different locations — libraries, schools and warehouses — across Tucson making their hands-on help more accessible to the community.
The workshop headquarters is in the Small Planet Bakery warehouse, 411 N. Fourth Ave., where caches of building materials such as cardboard, paper, and wood are kept.
Designs often include papier-mâché and complex wood frames to support the size and weight of floats.
The procession ends at the finale stage in Mercado San Agustin with a communal ritual of pyrotechnics, acrobats, drumming and more than 100 performers before the ceremonial urn burn.
Flames and smoke carry thousands of names, prayers and photos of remembered loved-ones from the urn into the night sky and up to the heavens.
Melanie Cooley, a six-year volunteer, and a team of attendants, usher the 9-foot-wide steel urn through the procession, collecting prayers and pictures from participants.
“We interact with thousands of people throughout the night,” said Cooley, adding signs of mourning are common.
She recalled one year when a masked women approached her and her husband with a photo of her sister, who had died three weeks earlier. “I couldn’t see her face but I could hear from her voice that she was crying,” added Cooley.
The finale serves as a cathartic end to an emotional journey.
A crane will hoist the urn onto a 30-foot-tall tower during the Flam Chen fire performance.
So you don’t miss it: for the first time MMOS is providing a multi-camera and professionally-produced live-video stream of the finale, on screen at the Rialto Theatre starting at 8 p.m.
Odaiko Sonora — Tucson’s Japanese ensemble drumming group — will, as it has for the past 10 years, incorporate the Obon festival tradition of lighting fires and lanterns to welcome the deceased.
This year, lanterns will be released into the crowd as Tucson’s version of the ritual.
Dance of the Dead Official After Party
If you’re dead tired after following the 2-mile route, musical performances at the official after party should liven your spirits at The Rialto.
Itchy-O Marching Band from Denver promises to deliver an extreme spectacle of costumes, percussions and electronics.
From Phoenix, Dry River Yacht Club — regular performers at the All Souls Procession — will play an eclectic combo featuring a mix of acoustic and electric instruments.
Desert Soul Marching Band — a new 25-plus member marching band comprised of a collection of local musicians — will also perform.