Sometimes it’s hard to explain our love for Tucson to those who look at our part of the Sonoran Desert and see only a dry, gravel-lot landscape and not the city that holds our hearts so close.
Perhaps if they stood outside Valarie Mariscal’s house, as I did this particular Friday night, they’d understand. From the street it looks like the beginning of any neighborhood party on a perfect October night–the heavy monsoon heat behind us and the gravel and asphalt almost cool to the touch.
However, it’s obvious there’s something different going on. On side of the yard sits a large pile of cardboard angel wings in all shapes and sizes, with volunteers painting them with a light coat of white tempura. On the other side of the yard there’s an assembly line with row upon row of hand-size sugar skulls glowing beneath the stretched-out branches of an old mesquite tree.
Tucson’s heart exists in many places, I say to myself as I watch the activity, but on this night in particular the city’s heart is Mariscal’s front yard. The volunteers are adding the finishing touches to items for the Procession of Little Angels.
The Procession of Little Angels, on Saturday, Nov. 1, is traditionally the first event of the All Souls Procession weekend, which culminates with the procession at 6 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 3. By the end of this Friday night, the volunteers, headed by Little Angels director Jhon Sanders, will have prepped more than 400 angels wings and sugar skulls to be decorated by children at an event that gives kiddos the opportunity to express loss in their own way. Sanders recalls that at past Little Angels events, many children have honored dead pets—sometimes the first significant loss for wee ones.
Sanders says the effort is an example of the best qualities of All Souls. It’s 100 percent community driven, with volunteer directors coordinating the weekend events and many more volunteers supplying the labor. Mariscal, for instance, is a volunteer who came forward more than five years ago with the idea of making sugar skulls for the event, and handing them out during the procession.
The first All Souls Procession was organized in 1990. It recalled the Dia de los Muertos celebrations of Mexico and brought together Tucson artists. It was a much smaller event back then, with just a few handfuls of people roaming down Fourth Avenue.
The year, about 50,000 people are expected to participate. Many will be dressed in calaveras make-up, some donning Frida Kahlo costumes, and often in creations all their own. Sometimes people carry large photographs or small memorials to loved ones they have lost in the past year. But quite often the procession is a mirror for issues affecting the greater community, such as the large papier-mâché jaguar in memory of Macho B, considered the last jaguar in Arizona. He was killed after being trapped by Arizona Game and Fish Department agents. Another year, it was heartbreaking for those of us who have ever worked at a newspaper to see former staff members from the shuttered Tucson Citizen walk by carrying a black coffin. Participants in another procession included former staff and friends of the close Grill restaurant, a downtown establishment beloved for its greasy fair and surly staff.
Some of the people who come out for the procession watch from the sidelines, but most join in the walk to the finale, which this year again will be held in the vacant lot next to Mercado San Augustín, off Congress Street west of the freeway. They’ll be entertained by various acts, including Tucson’s own Flam Chen, which combines pyrotechnics with acrobatics. And remembrances—goodbyes from people in the community to the departed—that have been collected in the traditional urn during the days leading up to the procession will be burned.
Tucson artist Mykl Wells, director of the community workshops that are held in the months leading up to the procession to help people create memorials and masks, says it may be the country’s largest and longest people-powered parade. It starts on the north side of the Sixth Avenue underpass, winds through downtown, crosses under Interstate 10 and ends on the westside in the Menlo Park neighborhood.
Wells visited Mexico often during the 1980s and was inspired by the Dia de los Muertos celebrations he saw in his travels. He and his artist friend Susan Johnson, who had just lost her father, put together those first All Souls Processions. It continued to grow as other artists, such Matt Cotton of Tucson Puppetworks, became involved. Eventually, Flam Chen founders Paul Weir and Nadia Hagen got their group involved, and became a driving force in keeping the event going and growing.
Wells says the price tag has grown each year, but it wouldn’t be so hard to pay the bills—perhaps as much as $93,000 for security, barricade costs and other expenses—if everyone who came to the procession donated a couple of dollars each.
Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild told the Tucson Weekly he considers the All Souls Procession to be a signature event, not just for Tucson but for the nation.
“I recognize that we’ve had to change the route of the parade three years in a row,” Rothschild said of construction issues ranging from Fourth Avenue underpass work to the more recent streetcar project. “That’s been difficult, but we’ll get through it. We’ll have a parade.”
Rothschild says the city has never received a financial request from procession organizers, although they are welcome to apply for funding. Requests are ultimately approved by the City Council but the process has to start early in the year. Although council members are supportive, Rothschild says a request for aid would come at a difficult time. The city budget is expected to be stretched even more in the coming year and in 2015. “We could be making the hardest decisions we’ve had to make since 2008,” the mayor said. “But I guess the answer is that it never hurts to ask. … certainly they have a case to make.”
Flam Chen co-founder Hagen isn’t so sure she or others who volunteer for the procession each year would be happy to take the help. “We don’t want the city to be the primary sponsor. Then they are going to have a say in what I’m doing,” Hagen said. “I’d just like to see the public chipping in, along with the city, making this thing happen, and not having all the weight rest on, at this point, six people.
“If the city was interested in being a true partner, then they’d make an investment and say they care. But still, I’d want people to own it. I want people to feel invested and that when they put that buck in, it means it is theirs,” she said.
Through fundraisers in the past few months, procession organizers have raised more than $40,000 and they expect to raise more this weekend. Hagen says fundraising went better than ever this year, with more individual donors and more support from small businesses., Hagen says that at its heart, the All Souls Procession is a do-it-yourself community event, and that as long as she and others like her are involved, it won’t be sponsored by the likes of Target or Budweiser.
Hagen says the media haven’t always been friends of the procession, dramatizing the costs and the length of the route rather than getting into the community spirit that drives the procession.
Hagen said there have been years when either she or Weir have said “Fuck it,” but have been talked out of it through reminders of good it feels to have a successful event.
“What else would I do that has this kind of meaning to this many people, especially being an artist?” Hagen said.
“I want grandmas and hipsters … and the cops that used to work (at the procession). What other art could I possibly want to create that would do that, that would create democracy?”
In Kelli Carpenter’s backyard, a small group of friends have been gathering the past two weeks, since the death of their dear friends Amy and Derrick Ross, the Bisbee-based couple who made up the musical duo Nowhere Man and a Whiskey Girl. Drying in the sun are large papier-mâché letters N, M, W and G. The purple cart that will hold them will be decorated with butterflies and paper flowers. On one end of the car is a guitar and a cardboard piano. At the other end are photo portraits of the couple.
Seeing the pile of old Tucson Weeklys that is being used for the project is actually heartening, I’m thinking. Better to use them for this than for fish wrap. Bisbee photographer and designer Jimi Giannatti is working on the photos, one of which he took, bejeweling the edges and thinking about his friends. He shows his wrist, tattooed WGNM. He gets tattoos to commemorate fallen friends, he says. And this gathering at the home of Carpenter, lead singer of the Tucson band the Tryst, is therapy for him. He and others are still coping with is nothing less than a tragedy. Amy Ross died at Tucson Medical Center two weeks ago, and Derrick Ross took his own life the next day in their Bisbee home.
“No one could banter the way they did,” Giannatti recalls. “And they charmed their audiences. No one ever left not falling in love with them.”
Carpenter says that if Amy and Derrick were around, they’d probably blush at the idea of the memorial.
“They wouldn’t like the idea of the attention, but they don’t have a say. It’s really for us to be able to put away our sadness,” she said.
Carpenter says it was an impulsive decision to make a memorial for the procession, but that it made sense. “This is our town, our time to honor them.”
At the Steinfeld Warehouse, Mykel Wells is shuffling from one table to the next, working with different people. Some are working on large projects and others have just popped in to make a mask or lantern, whatever moves them for the procession.
Taja Alcantara is there with her mom, Juanita Garcia, and her son, Hunter Papay, making a huge cardboard motorcycle in honor of Alcantara’s late fiancé, who died in a motorcycle accident more than 15 years ago. Alcantara is starting a foundation named after him. The Mark Allen Cravens Foundation is focused on teaching people how to properly respond when they see victims of motorcycle accident.
Alcantara was driving the motorcycle at the time of the accident. Street racers drove into them, causing the crash. It was a long recovery for the former nurse, who spent a lot of time figuring out how to keep Cravens’ memory alive and possibly save other people as a result.
“When we found out about the community workshop, I called Mykl and told him what I wanted to do,” she said. “He said sure. … He’s been helping us from the very beginning. We couldn’t have done it without him.”
UA art student Stella Risch, who is working as Wells’ intern for the workshops, has been part of the procession since moving to Tucson in 2007, but she had never really understood what goes on behind the scenes to make it happen.
“The fact that we have to pay the city to make it happen blows my mind because so many people come here for it,” she said. “So many people who come together to make it all happen. It’s more of a community than an organization—a little of both I’d say. All the logistics are like pieces of a puzzle.”
Senior healthcare worker Molly Moore has watched the procession for years, but this is the first year she’ll walk in it and the first year she’s come to the workshop and made something for it—a lantern as a memorial to a client who recently died.
“I got very close to him and his family, and I had previously decided that I wanted to get more involved in the procession,” she said. “I’ve always thought it was such an incredible thing and such a community-based project.”
Before I leave the warehouse, Wells has me at table making a mask, my hand covered in clay and papier-mâché. His mother, Lorna, comes over and gives me tips from time to time.
As a working artist, Wells says the workshop is a way to be involved in the community, and he’s grateful for the opportunity. “Art can be a solitary work,” he lamented. “But there’s nothing solitary about All Souls. That was the point from the beginning. And to see how it’s grown into something larger than any of us … it’s Tucson.”