All souls procession returns to Tucson

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Photo courtesy of Jeff Smith

The All Souls Procession returns this weekend with more culture, sights and sounds than ever to lure the lost souls of loved ones back to celebrate.

This year marks the 24th annual All Souls Procession, which is put on by the nonprofit organization Many Mouths One Stomach.

Growing from a humble ceremony Susan Kay Johnson originally began to honor her father, the procession now draws in more than 50,000 people. This year, it is expected to attract even more, making it one of the largest Dia de los Muertos-inspired events in the country, said Fonda Insley, Board Officer for Many Mouths One Stomach. Procession participants will start gathering just north of the underpass on North Sixth Avenue at 4 p.m., and the procession will officially begin at 6 p.m.

Though the event draws from the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, is influenced by many cultural traditions, with the commonality as a way to honor the dead, Insley said.

“In Mexico, they call Tucson ‘Day of the Dead Town,’” said Artistic Director and Treasurer Nadia Hagen. “For them, it’s family; it’s more religious. They get down, but they come to the border and they’re like, ‘You guys are crazy.’”

The weekend is designed to help the community mourn those it has lost and create an expressive atmosphere for everyone involved, Hagen added.

“We lack places in our American culture to really honor people who we’ve lost in our lives,” Hagen said. “It gives them a moment where they’re allowed free expression, where they really get to feel part of [the] community, and really connect to that place of humanity, and that is completely universal. If there’s one thing that we all share, that’s death.”

Insley said that this procession is non-political and doesn’t confine anyone to a specific set of traditions, which makes it a place of expression for everyone, regardless of where they come from.

“America is one of those places where it really is a melting pot, and there’s a really big difference because there’s so many cultures,” Insley said. “As a group, we really don’t have a cultural way that we honor our ancestors or deal with the passing of people. This is a place where everyone can show up and celebrate the lives of those who came before us however they choose.”

The event provides several ways for the community to honor its ancestors, and community members may choose whether to actively participate or not. Many people come to the procession, paint their faces and bring some form of remembrance of their lost loved ones to place in The Urn, which leads the procession. The Urn is led by members of the Community Spirit Group called Urn Attendants, who are entrusted with participants’ prayers, remembrances, photos and anything else they wish to give, said Melanie Cooley, volunteer coordinator and Urn Attendant.

“We’re the hand of the urn. We are the ones who reach out and collect those prayers and remembrances of people from the street,” Cooley said. “We spend a couple months actually preparing for it, which is partly making costumes and is partly mentally and emotionally and psychically preparing ourselves to serve our community in that way.”

A group in the procession will hand out paper for people to write last-minute prayers or messages on throughout the event. At the finale, the urn will be burned to “send” the messages to all the lost souls. Following the finale, the Dance of the Dead will begin at the Rialto Theatre, featuring A Tribe Called Red, Dry River Yacht Club, Tygel Pinto and The Garcia Brothers. Doors open at 8 p.m. and admission is $22 at the door, with $5 going to Many Mouths One Stomach.

“[In Mexican culture,] They really found a place to reach across this human experience that can be very devastating,” Hagen said, “Instead of turning away from it, they have founded a beautiful way to embrace it. We’re all very lucky that they did that.”

Follow Jessica Schrecker @JKSchrecker


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