Growing San Francisco Day of the Dead celebration has some worried, others excited 

click to enlarge Mixcoatl Arts & Crafts
  • Evan DuCharme/special to The S.F. Examiner
  • Connie Rivera owns Mixcoatl Arts & Crafts on 24th and South Van Ness streets, which sells traditional crafts for Day of the Dead. The annual festival is Saturday.
We all eventually die, and everybody knows someone who has passed on.

That means everyone — from the Mission to Maine — has something to share on Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

The local rendition of the Mexican holiday takes place in the Mission district, and it has grown over the years from a somber spiritual festival to a widely attended street affair that attracts crowds from all over the Bay Area.

This year, Day of the Dead falls on Saturday, which means the crowds massing at 22nd and Bryant streets for the procession and setting up altars at Garfield Park at 26th and Bryant streets could be bigger than ever.

And that’s a problem, according to some neighborhood fixtures who fear the event is becoming the next Halloween — meaning The City could shut it down if it gets too out of hand.

“It’s about respecting the tradition and the dead, and people are not doing that,” said Erick Arguello, president of the Lower 24th Street Merchants Association. He added that some attendees behave as if the festival is a combination of Halloween and Carnaval.

“It’s just gotten so big,” Arguello said. “With people coming from everywhere, and the drinking ... we don’t want it to end up like Halloween and get shut down.”

In 2006, seven people were shot during the Castro district Halloween celebration. The party was over by the following year and has not returned.

Either way, comparisons to Halloween may be premature. Last year, police issued no more than “a few” citations for public drunkenness or open containers of alcohol during Day of the Dead, said Officer Gordon Shyy.

It’s not clear how many people participate in the event. Arguello estimates it’s about 10,000. Juan Pablo Gutierrez, who has organized the procession every year for three decades, pegs the crowd at more than 100,000 — and said Arguello’s warning is downright absurd.

“There’s no problem with it getting too big,” said Gutierrez, who thinks culture, class and race may fuel any tensions about a growing event. “They just don’t want white people involved.”

True, the presence of young, upwardly mobile — and white — people celebrating what was once a Latino neighborhood tradition might strike a particularly insensitive chord this year: artist Rene Yanez, one of the founders of San Francisco’s celebration, and his family are in the process of being evicted from their San Jose Avenue apartment under the state’s Ellis Act, a property conversion law.

There is no doubt Day of the Dead is growing in popularity beyond cultural barriers. Themed T-shirts can be seen on Giants fans during games — and Disney even tried to trademark Day of the Dead earlier this year before it met with loud public outcry.

“People are jumping on this bandwagon,” said Jaime Maldonado, a neighborhood native who runs her family business, La Victoria Bakery, on 24th Street.

There is an element of youth that will use any excuse to act out,” he said, and “it’s started to feel like a weekend sponsored by Budweiser.”

The alternative, though, is not desirable either. The Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, an important holiday for Latin American communities, is a thing of the past in the Mission, with few people even going to Mass.

In other words, there’s a place for everyone, even the Burning Man types — the jugglers and stilt-walkers, and Playa refugees who wear their still-dusty costumes. All they need is a candle, a picture of a loved one who’s passed on and the right attitude.

“No one’s saying don’t come,” Maldonado said. “Come and enjoy it right.”

IF YOU GO

Dia De Los Muertos

When: Saturday

Details: Procession begins at 22nd and Bryant streets at 7 p.m.; public is welcome to set up altars at Garfield Park, 26th and Bryant streets, from 4 to 11 p.m.

Info: www.dayofthedeadsf.org

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts

Bio:
Chris Roberts has worked as a reporter in San Francisco since 2008, with an emphasis on city governance and politics, The City’s neighborhoods, race, poverty and the drug war.
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