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Community divided over Día de los Muertos tradition
Celebración del Día de los Muertos en la calle Valencia. Day of the Dead Celebration on Valencia Street, Nov. 2. Photo Joelene Navarro
Celebración del Día de los Muertos en la calle Valencia. Day of the Dead Celebration on Valencia Street, Nov. 2. Photo Joelene Navarro

The pounding rhythms of the youth drumming group Loco Bloco echoed off the buildings along 24th Street during the “Our Mission: No Evictions” Day of the Dead procession on Nov. 2.

For Fernando Marti and Michelle Foy of PODER the evictions are hitting close to home. Marti related the story of family friends living in a 10-unit building. “Some seniors who have been there for 30 year are getting evicted,” Marti said.

While acknowledging the uphill battle, Foy still is hopeful the change is possible.

“There are a lot of forces up against the people who are trying to stay in the Mission. And beyond that forces in the world who are trying to put people down, destroy the planet, make our lives hellish. Not to suggest that we can’t win. ¡Venceremos! Es posible,” Foy said.

Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi was in attendance and recounted the story of former Sheriff Richard Hongisto who was jailed for refusing to evict the elderly tenants of the International Hotel in Chinatown. However, after found in contempt of court, he was forced to carry out the evictions in 1977.

Finding himself in a similar situation, Mirkarimi said: “It’s a real pirouette to see what we can do since we’re the agency of last resort to the most vulnerable populations.”

“But since this is court ordered we’re duty-bound, and that’s what the tension is. What do you do in defiance of a duty-bound court order when ultimately you know the eviction is going to take place anyhow?” he said.

A people-powered flatbed stage led the procession and featured a striking art piece designed by Carlos Castillo. As it wove its way through the neighborhood, event organizer Jose Carrasco spoke from the flatbed.

“It is not the second Halloween. It is not Mardi Gras. It is not where you come and simply paint your face and dress up and parade around and drink beer and smoke weed. That’s not what it is at its heart,” Carrasco said.

And yet, one could see people in the crowd engaging in those actions. The number of participants in the procession were equaled, if not surpassed, by the number of observers standing on the side—a new phenomena over the past few years.

Despite this, many people are working to maintain the original meaning of Dia de los Muertos. Loco Bloco staff member Alma Herrera-Pazmiño was there to pass on the tradition to the members of the Poco Locos children’s section through a series of activities held at Brava Theater.

She was also paying homage to her grandparents.

“I’m remembering my grandparents today by wearing my grandfather’s jacket,” Herrera-Pazmiño said.

Lisa Ruth Elliot, a community historian and 18-year resident, shared a personal Ellis Act story. Evicted from her home last August, she is still looking for a place to call home.

Her message to the newer class of tenants moving into the Mission was to “be aware of role and place and to not just lap it up as if it’s there just to be given to them. To really participate, understand, learn because otherwise you never going to be a part of the community.”

Procession down Valencia Street
Meanwhile, on another part of the Mission and a few hours earlier, several dozen people gathered at Mission Playground on Valencia and 19th streets as part of Día de los Muertos celebrations.

Xochitl Bernadette Moreno, an active member in the community, shares why she chose to come to this particular procession labeled “Mourning our Loss,” that acknowledged the eviction phenomenon that is causing displacement for San Francisco natives.

“For me it’s very important to take today to mourn not just the deaths, but also to mourn the loss of the Mission,” Moreno said. “(The) barrio that really helped form who I am. By being (in) a place where Latino culture thrived, I felt like there was a home, a safe place in this community.”

“We (are) reminding Valencia Street that this is our barrio too,” she added.

Attendees made a “tapete” depicting a skeleton that read “Muerte a los Desalojos” before starting to march down Valencia Street.

Adriana Miranda referred to the main procession on Bryant and 22nd streets as an event that’s “gotten out of control … nothing but a bunch of people that don’t respect and don’t even know what the tradition is about … so this is like a countermarch, it’s a way of us taking back our holiday from all these people that don’t know what it is.”

The procession was organized by People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), Yo Soy 132, and other activist groups who claim that their Day of the Dead celebrations in the Mission have been transformed negatively.

“We feel like we have to bring the tradition back so people know what it’s really about. We’re not trying to insult anybody, we’re just trying to show them what it really is to us and then they can participate,” said Jose Cruz from the group Yo Soy 132. “It’s not just about people coming to the neighborhood and watching us and taking pictures.”

Elba Riviera, who has lived in the Mission for 56 years, expressed her concerns for maintaining the tradition in the Mission and how important the ceremony is to her.

“People who have gone before us … we have this day to celebrate their life, and this is how we remember them because they were our past,” Riviera said. “In our country we go visit the graves and have a picnic.”

Story by: Eva Martinez & Joeline Navarro