Every year an eclectic ensemble of dedicated downtown residents, performers, artists and musicians organizes the ever-evolving All Soul's Day Procession. It's a unique Tucson tradition that has brought the community together through creation, celebration and mourning. This year the principal organizers include Tucson Puppet Works, Flam Chen, BICAS Metal Works, Mat Bevel, the Tucson Arts District Partnership, Barbea Williams Dance Company, Molehill and Crawdaddy-O.
The tradition of the downtown procession started in 1989 with the efforts of artist Susan Johnson, after the death of her father, with a three-day performance designed to express and accept the grieving process. The performance celebrated All Hallows' Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day. The public's curiosity drew the artists out of Johnson's small studio space into a procession, to share the energy with the community. From then on, the celebration took the form of a parade.
"All Souls' Day is one of the oldest holidays celebrated in the world," says Johnson. "I wanted to create an artists' parade, not just a celebration of one culture. The merging of art forms with the heaviness of death became a very beautiful thing. It brought down a lot of barriers between the different cultures."
The procession has grown with the momentum of an avalanche, gaining popularity within various communities and proving that people are searching for a healthy expression of the emotions and issues surrounding death.
"(The procession) serves an awesome purpose for a lot of people in that we don't have a lot of support in our culture for approaching death," says Nadia Hagen, one of the principal organizers of this years' procession and a leader of the fire troupe Flam Chen.
Johnson worried that the energy surrounding Halloween is often destructive. "But somehow the parade is a really powerful vehicle to express anger and rage constructively. To create and use your own creation--it is transforming. You have to do it to experience the energy.
"The metaphor of the mask is also incredibly powerful. When no one knows who you are, you are free to experience an extraordinary transformation."
Over the years various grants have been received to fund workshops for the community, led by local artists. They have always been free and open to the public, teaching papier-mâché mask making, processional lantern construction, music and dance. But when the procession grew too large to be contained on the sidewalks, the grant money went to the city to pay for police officers and security.
This year, Matt Cotten of Tucson Puppet Works is spearheading the effort to secure a Back To Basics grant from the city to pay for the free community workshops held at his Congress Street studio, insurance and the $1,500 worth of off-duty police officers provided by the South Tucson Police Department.
The Back to Basics grant recipients were to be announced by October 6, but the mayor's office was still indecisive at press time. This has left the parade organizers with the burden of soliciting donations from local businesses, supplying materials out of pocket for making floats and masks, and praying that the community's support for such a unique tradition will bring enough money in to keep them afloat.
An optimistic Hagen believes, "Cash or not, the parade will go on. People are really committed to having this event happen, however it needs to manifest itself."
All are invited to join the All Souls' Procession, which begins at the International Arts Center, 516 N. Fifth Ave., at 7 p.m. Saturday, November 4. It will proceed down Fourth Avenue, through downtown, making stops at the Ronstadt Transit Center and the Tucson/Pima Main Library for performances by Tucson Puppet Works and Barbea Williams Dance Company, respectively. The procession will culminate at the Mat Bevel Institute where a spectacular show of fire, music and puppets will ensue. Flam Chen will be joined by several other flame-toters from around the West, providing Tucson with a glimpse of world-class fire artistry. Be sure to come dressed as the dead or ready to be costumed!