Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Dia de los Muertos, Weeping for the Mission and Don Cooksey

The word on Mission streets this year was that Dia de los Muertos is officially played out. The Mexican holiday/arts and culture celebration used to be one of the few times that people in the Mission forgot about neighborhood politics and partied together. Burners painted their faces, gave puppet shows and danced in the park, while working class families and long-time Mission residents built altars in honor of loved ones who had passed away, and everyone came together for the street procession at dusk.

Not so this year. The Examiner ran a front page article about neighborhood concerns over how large the event had grown, which featured the rather unfortunate quote, "They just don't want white people involved." SFist encouraged its readers to "try not to ruin Day of the Dead this year," and, most importantly, the Mission Cultural Center's art show for the holiday focused on themes of eviction and gentrification. It was titled "Weeping for the Life and Death of the Mission District," and the opening was held at the same time as the procession.

It was sad to see something that used to be a fun, low-key neighborhood event get caught up in land-use politics, but it wasn't surprising. This is, after all, San Francisco. And the complainers did have a point. Rene Yanez, a long-time Mission resident and one of the key figures behind bringing the Dia de los Muertos event to San Francisco, is currently fighting an Ellis Act eviction. 

But none of that stopped us from going. Quite frankly, we had lost too much this year not to go. 

We stopped by the park early to avoid the crowds, where we built a small altar. It could have been the daylight hours, or because some artists chose not to exhibit this year, but the altars seemed smaller and less impressive than in the past. Maybe all of the best people were over at the Mission Cultural Center. Their opening proved to be the most memorable part of the evening. That's not doing it justice. It was brilliant. 

There were over 50 artists who created altars for Weeping. One of the most intense was a monument to the hundreds of women who've gone missing in Ciudad Juarez. Their faces lined the wall in the small room where the altar was placed, and a documentary played on a screen at the back of the room. Other altars dealt with issues of class, loss and culture, and some were simply well-planned traditional altars in the style of the holiday.

The most memorable, were the ones dealing with the ongoing class struggles of the Mission. An entire row of altars was dedicated to businesses and cultural icons of the neighborhood that have closed, or been forced to move, in recent years. These remembered places like Discolandia, Modern Times Bookstore and Encantada Gallery. City College of San Francisco was honored with an altar due to its ongoing accreditation struggles, and an altar created by Linnette Morales and Claudia Arenas used prominent symbols of the new economy to mourn the "tech takeover" of the neighborhood. It featured a skeleton sporting the fuzzy, pink mustache of a Lyft car, a cutout of a Google bus running over a street vendor, and a traditional alter candle that had a slightly pixelized image of Mark Zuckerberg's face.

After seeing the exhibit, Russell Howze and I walked down 24th St. to get back to my car. The streets were crowded, and the event was clearly much larger than it used to be. Russell observed that instead of a crazy march with torches through Balmy Alley, it was now a horde of bridge and tunnel folks lined up to watch. 

Is the event's popularity really such a bad thing? 

Not necessarily. Just because something is popular doesn't mean it isn't good – things often become popular because they're good. But there is something kind of unseemly about watching so many white, upwardly-mobile people celebrate a Mexican holiday, at the same time that their presence is pricing out the artists and Latino population responsible for the festivities.

The crowded streets of 24th proved too much for us, and we cut through an empty Balmey Alley to get back across Potrero. When we reached my car, I opened the trunk and pulled out a fuzzy pink mustache, which I attached to the front of my car with zip ties and carabiners. It was almost time to go to work.

I went to the park to remember some of the people and things I lost this year. A sampling of them are memorialized below, in no particular order.


CELLspace was a collectively run community arts center on Bryant St. I was a member from the fall of 2000 until the spring of 2007. During that time I lived in a small box in the ceiling, sat through hundreds of hours of ritual theater, called 911 more than once, and had some of the best times of my life. I also worked like a dog. The story of the rise and fall of Cell is told in a previous post on this blog, "An Obituary for CELLspace." To remember Cell, I brought an old T-shirt, and Russell Howze brought some "Long Live Cellspace" flyers.

Juan Cardenas

Juan was one of the nicest people who ever worked at the Circus Center. His hugs, smiles and handshakes were genuine, and he was always there with an encouraging word for a struggling performer. I typically ran into him on those late nights at the circus school when I would stick around to practice my act for upcoming gigs. He never once complained about having to clean around me. His death at the hands of a hit-and-run driver was tragic, and criminal.  I didn't have anything to leave for Juan, but Dian drew a lovely card for us to place on our altar in his memory.

Don Cooksey

When I was a kid, I thought of Don Cooksey as an eternal bachelor – he was always at our house instead of his own. Don loved pizza, had an intense stare, and played a mean hand of spades. In later years, after I grew up and moved away, Cooksey started a family of his own, but he'll always be a part of ours too. I didn't have much to remember Don either, but I wrote his name down on a piece of paper, and taped a Marlboro cigarette to it.

Victor Ayala

Victor was a good friend, a skilled electrician, and someone I used to call "the most feared man at CELLspace." He was famous for coming down from his room at 3 a.m. and screaming at event producers about the mess they made. Victor was a bit of a nut, be he had a sweet side too – I used to always talk him into taking me on late-night Burger King runs after a long night house managing at Cell. To remember Vic, Russell brought some flyers with his photo, and I brought a pack of Marlboros. Hopefully, he will share them with Cooksey.