Downtown Tucson used to be a ghost town, a haunt for "artists and freaks," says All Souls Procession volunteer Melanie Cooley. But it's changed dramatically, as has the annual Procession. And as it's been morphing, it's been migrating westward, from the Franklin Docks to El Mercado, from Fourth to Sixth Avenue, to its new route.
A longtime volunteer coordinator, Many Mouths One Stomach board member and general doer of all that needs doing, Cooley used to live in the Menlo Park neighborhood, near the dry Santa Cruz River. She says walking next to that river bed made her a Tucsonan.
That river once gave life; it's the reason Tucson exists—the "historical life-blood of the region," Cooley says. "The river's a ghost that haunts the center of Tucson."
This year, the Procession continues its migration, west of the freeway into Menlo and Barrio Hollywood. It continues to honor the spirits of Tucson, and this year it honors the spirit of the river as an "ancestor of our community," Cooley says. "An honoring of what's precious and what's already been lost."
When the Procession began, in 1990, it was put together on the fly. About 25 people showed up. Susan Tiss was there, watching Procession founder Susan Johnson's performance. "It was remarkable," Tiss says. "Not like anything most of us had seen before."
A native Tucsonan, Tiss grew up hearing about the history of the Santa Cruz, and she's been photographing the Procession since 1997. She says bringing to Procession to the river and away from downtown brings it back to its roots.
"Even though it's festive, it's not just a wild party," she said. "At its core it's reverential, and that's what it's meant to be."
As the years progressed and the crowd grew, they became more official with permits and police permission. When the streetcar came in, they moved from Fourth to Sixth Avenue. And as downtown's weekend party scene grew, they switched from Saturday to Sunday "in order to preserve the sacred intention of the procession," Cooley says.
The budget for All Souls, along with all its workshops, the Procession of Little Angels and the finale, is about $150,000, of which 70 percent comes from individual donors and small businesses who donate $50 to $100 apiece, according to Cooley. They also get a grant from the city and have some larger business sponsors.
Not crossing the freeway will save between $15,000 to $20,000 in police barricades, closing roads, insurance and other costs. And at least part of that savings will be spent on a new addition to the finale—the Tucson Symphony Orchestra.
On the finale stage will be a tent to protect the 50 classical musicians and their instruments from the elements. It's a great partnership of "grassroots rough-and-tumble and established musicians," Cooley says.
Before the new route became official, Many Mouths One Stomach, the artist collective that runs the Procession, met with the Menlo Park and Barrio Hollywood neighborhood associations, businesses and the neighborhood American Legion, and they were "100 percent, enthusiastically on board," Cooley says.
Barista del Barrio owner Sergio Torres exudes that enthusiasm. The 22-year-old lives a neighborhood over and runs the little coffee shop on the corner of Grande and Delaware Street with the help of his mother and sister. He usually closes at 1 p.m., but he's going to stay open as late as it takes the night of the Procession.
Eva Peña, who also lives in the 'hood, says the feedback has been nothing but positive. Peña has been volunteering with the Procession for years, an urn chaperone for the last two, walking the Procession in silence and collecting people's prayers. She says Barrio Hollywood is used to fiestas. This one's just going to be a lot bigger.
But she understands that some may be resistant to the change, as she was when it moved off Fourth Avenue.
"Some people don't like change, but eventually, if the Procession is something they want to be a part of, they'll get over it," she says. "The core of it is not changing, just the street."