Dead and Loving It: Joyous Dia De Los Muertos Was the Anti-Castro

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(Please visit our Dia De Los Slideshow)

Costumes, respect, discreet drinking, and hands-off cops make for a blissful evening

By Joe Eskenazi


In an exercise somewhat akin to the 18th-century intellectual version of bar-room drunks snarling over who would start on a football team blessed with both Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham decided to quantify how much an activity contributed to society’s happiness.

Bentham’s concept of ranking pleasure numerically is difficult to grasp (and his decision to have his corpse taxidermically stuffed like a stag or bear and put on display doesn’t inspire confidence with his decision-making process) -– but after attending Friday’s Dia de los Muertos procession in the city, I think I understand what Bentham was thinking (about the utils, not getting stuffed like a hunting lodge moose).

The utils of joy were soaring to the heavens out of the Mission that evening. Costumes, fun, laughter, decent behavior, people drinking beer out of bags, and the few cops present taking ...

it in stride – it was everything Halloween in the Castro wasn’t.

“In the Castro there didn’t seem to be much of anything to do. And there were a lot of cops. We went to the Lexington instead,” said Laura Balch, who showed up in the Mission fresh from a mass-shaving cream pie-fight at Powell Station (she still reeked of aloe vera and foam was slathered across her outfit, a dead ringer for the one Mary Tyler Moore donned while tossing her cap in the air in Minneapolis).

Balch glanced around at the dancing, drum-playing, candle-waving masses surrounding us. C’est la difference.

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“This is much more awesome. There’s a much higher people-to-cop ratio. And the costumes are better.”

In fact, it was entertaining to guess who made a few quick modifications to his or her Halloween costume to “Dead it up” a bit. Mr. Incredible became … Zombie Mr. Incredible! A Manchester United soccer star became … Zombie soccer star! I also saw the zombified version of nuns/traditional Sicilian women, businessmen, prom dates, etc. It was a banner day for vendors of white face paint.

A police officer told me that “perhaps 15” cops were stationed around an area teeming with perhaps 15,000 revelers. When I brought up the lockdown-like situation in the Castro, he said the situations were as different as night and day (of the Dead).

“The event Halloween in the Castro became was all about doing whatever you wanted,” the officer said. “This is about honoring your loved ones who have passed away in the past year.”

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Well, kudos to him for knowing the history of Dia de los Muertos, an amalgamation of Aztec remembrance practices and Catholicism’s All Souls Day. That being said, quite a few folks seemed to be honoring the dead by drinking in public and, in one memorable case, clambering on to a shaky dumpster to dance wildly and crack bullwhips (fittingly enough, one reveler climbed onto the dumpster using an unstable pile telephone books as a stepladder: The ads emblazoned upon the books’ covers read “SERIOUS INJURY CLAIMS!”).

And yet, despite the drunken cavorting and whipping, nobody misbehaved. To touch once again on European philosophy, violations of the social contract were few and far between.

“This procession always has a good vibe,” said zombie/skeleton-faced Mission community worker Jose Carrasco, who’s been dancing in the streets since he got to San Francisco in 1981. “People come here with a certain respect. No one acts up.”

Not far off, skeleton-faced Castro residents Julianna Hendricks and Steven Okuhn walked by with a mysterious box; Okuhn divulged that they were at the crowded gathering to honor their recently departed kittens, Nina and Speed. Hendricks said that, if she could get the box open, she would probably spread the cats’ ashes. Since it seemed a somber moment, I decided not to make light of the fact she was about to spread feline cremains in Garfield Park.

We approached the altars honoring the dead. Hundreds of photos danced in the flickering candlelight: grade-school children in ill-fitting suits, raven-haired women, and mustachioed men with short-sleeve shirts hoisting their infants toward the camera while grinning for posterity. They were young, vibrant, and full of life.

Photos | Alexia Aubault
(Please visit our Dia De Los Slideshow)


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