In this season, memories of family and celebration swell in my heart. I recall growing up in Brooklyn where year-end holiday preparations started slowly, at family dinner tables, and then came alive in full force as the season emerged. These rituals enriched my quality of life. They helped me preserve heritage, foster pride, establish legacy and stay engaged in community. Years later – with my family scattered across several states and immersed in life’s whirlwind – festival continues to be important in my community place-making. It is what reinforces the celebratory aspects of family and community, for myself, for my son and future generations.
My husband and I moved to the Southwest five years ago, and here we discovered unique aspects of festival as they apply to our Native American, Mexican and Sonora region cultures. These festivals have helped us settle in to our new home. Traditions of family, food, health and spirit have demonstrated to us how across cultures a community sense of place is enhanced through ritual. It’s not unlike those I experienced growing up in Brooklyn. Two celebrations in particular demonstrate our community’s great appreciation of place but also reflect seasonal festivals that reflect our region’s strong belief in itself.
Community rituals can be healing and help us express our emotions in the midst of complex context. This is the case of the All Souls Procession, an annual celebration of joy and grief and folklore. It represents a tremendous spectrum of human expression and is a dynamic experience for the entire Tucson community, inspiring feelings of family. The All Souls Procession is Tucson’s longest running story of remembrance, and is now in its 23rd year. It whispers of ancient times and celebrates a cycle of life and death. For me, it is the community’s most anticipated ritual of the season, a tradition that links spirituality, art and riveting spectacle.
A weekend of All Souls festivities is held in November. It includes a juried exhibition, a Procession of Little Angels, an Altar Vigil and Poetry readings. The Sunday Procession is the centerpiece. Momentum for it builds each year, generated by thousands who participate in the astonishing community gathering that nourishes the spirit of the living while creatively remembering the dead. The Procession attracts dancers, musicians and onlookers in a fantasy that unfolds throughout the evening along our city’s downtown streets. Waves of angels, skeletons, looming puppets, twirlers and stilt walkers push carts or pull floats awash in glow lights, candles and paper lanterns. A Grande Finale culminates in a ritual performance by guest artists. There’s a symbolic fiery cleansing where a huge Urn, filled with messages collected along the procession route by attendants, is burned and concludes the ritual. Nadia Hagen is the All Souls Procession artistic director who along with a team of co-directors (called “buckstoppers”) is at the center of this surreal interface. “We write a new chapter each year,” she says of this very community ritual.
In recent years a focal point of a Grand Finale has been created by local musicians like the Pipe and Drum Band, who last year led the Procession along the route and then performed a 25-minute arrangement specially created for the Procession’s closing ceremony. There also are interactive sculptures to artistically express remembrance – recently the Procession included an illuminated cocoon containing hundreds of paper kites handmade from washi and bamboo. The kites contained messages to loved ones and were released in the finale celebration. Each fall, these elements of the All Souls ritual combine as a body of tradition that unifies our community.
More and more, American folk life festivals have become a way to share traditional expressive cultures across the United States. Since 1974 a festival called Tucson Meet Yourself has been a way to celebrate a wide range of creative familial and ethnic customs that are expressed thru art, dance storytelling, music, games, handicraft and food. This free community event takes place in our downtown during the second weekend of October. Many smaller communities that make up our diverse city participate by demonstrating the beauty of their culture that has been passed down through the generations. Traditional storytelling, arts and crafts, costumes and recipes are a way to share folk culture, bind together neighborhoods and give individuals a sense of community.
In this weekend of celebration one can eat a hand made tamale, watch a master artisan craft some leatherwork, listen to a Tohono O’dham story and enjoy a folk dance all in one afternoon. This celebration of unique ritual helps me feel part of varied traditions. This is one memorable festival that communicates the sounds, arts, smells, visuals and experiences of community identity and cultural practice.
Through these two festivals I’ve reinforced a close identification with my new hometown. In understanding cultures I’ve shared more than the group experiences. Particularly those rituals that involve sustaining the spirit, I’m more than an audience – the religious traditions I’m experiencing help me recall my own ceremonies.