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Juan Pablo Gutierrez—the 62-year-old who for the last three decades has vehemently fought off those attempting to profit from San Francisco’s Day of the Dead Ritual Procession—had the look of a man who just didn’t “have it” that night.

“I’ve been very sick since January,” Gutierrez said days before the Nov. 2 event, his words perhaps best illustrated by his gaunt figure and the metal cane he used to stand up straight. “But I don’t give up.”

And he proved his determination that night.

As the procession’s standard bearers (12 in total and each holding a bamboo standard topped with a cutout of the Aztec crocodile lord Cipactli) lined up at the corner of 22nd and Bryant streets, Gutierrez–in front of the massive wave of calavera-painted faces–found his legs. For the mile-and-a-half trek through the Mission, the one that marked the 33rd annual procession, Gutierrez kept up.

“Since I took it on 33 years ago, my commitment was never to falter from our motto: Our dead are not for sale,” said Gutierrez, who is a founding member and director of the Cultural Rescue Collective, which puts on the annual procession without the aid of any kind of government or corporate funding—surviving solely on raffle revenue and donations.

Juan Pablo Gutierrez at his home in San Francisco’s Fillmore District. Photo S. Thollot.

This year the collective raised about $10,000.

“We’ve never made any money off of it. And we don’t intend to as long as I’m alive,” he said.

But, that hasn’t stopped people from trying. In a tone that’s more prideful than boastful, Gutierrez tells of the time a sports conglomerate offered to market their products at Garfield Square Park during the procession for $100,000 a year for five years. Gutierrez turned them down flat. Another year, Ford came calling and offered to costume their model trucks as skeletons to partake in the event. Gutierrez didn’t buckle then either.

“Our whole goal has been to rescue something that has been very unique,” Gutierrez said. “It was there before the Spaniards arrived.”
San Francisco did have a Day of the Dead procession before Gutierrez arrived in 1982. The city’s first was organized by Rene Yañez, co-founder of Galería de la Raza. But the reigns were eventually handed over to Gutierrez, who had experience having already started a Day of the Dead procession in Austin, Texas.

It was there in Texas where Gutierrez’s education began. His grandmother, Antonia Sanchez, was a Laredo-born card reader whose family opened the first milk delivery service in Monterrey, Mexico during the time of Pancho Villa. That’s where Gutierrez was born.

“I’ve been around the healers and healing arts since I was a baby,” he said, revealing he hadn’t seen a real doctor until the age of 8. “It’s not something that I just picked up. It’s something that I was born with.”