All Souls Procession—Homegrown at its Best

November 4, 2012 |

Over the years, Tucson has played host to any number of popular and well attended annual events. The Tucson Folk and Blues festivals, Tucson Meet Yourself (see page 6), Nam Jam, the Festival en el Barrio and the Rodeo Parade are but a few of these well-established homegrown happenings. And while we celebrate them all as our own, unique to our part of the world, none seems to have captured Tucson’s collective imagination and curiosity more than the annual All Souls Procession.

“I have never been to an event that generates so much participation,” reflects longtime Tucsonan Bruce Hilpert. “There is almost no line drawn between participants and spectators.  Even those who are watching the parade are dressed for the event as are participants. Very cool.”

Initially conceived in 1990 as a performance art piece by Susan Johnson, to honor the passing of her late father, and inspired by Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) holiday, the event has mushroomed into a ritualistic spectacle drawing tens of thousands to its two mile parade route. There, without the benefit of anyone who even remotely appears to be a parade or event organizer, a mass of humanity, decked out in all manner of costume and skeletal face paint, almost magically turns out to spectate, march or actively participate by coming in costume and/or or placing the name or names of loved ones who have passed, into the ceremonial Urn.  The role of the Urn is key as its contents are later burned as a part of the event’s Grand Finale, a theatrically staged event that could easily stand alone as a separate production unto itself.

While clearly this is a cathartic opportunity to respectfully mourn and honor what has passed, the atmosphere more closely resembles that of a Marti Gras than a wake.  This is especially so given the variety of elaborately conceived costumes, masks and rolling alters that help to define the event. As with any good parade, musicians of all stripes—from one man bands to drumming groups, to string ensembles, to even last year’s appearance by the University of Arizona’s Marching Band—are also an integral part of the vibe.

Sponsored by the Many Mouths One Stomach (MMOS), a local non-profit art collective, the event has continued to evolve beyond what anyone could possibly have imagined.  This year’s biggest change and perhaps challenge, will be the shift in the parade route (to avoid streetcar construction) and the inauguration of a new site for the finale.

Instead of the usual gathering place at University and Fourth Ave., marchers will now gather downtown at Toole St. just west of the Congress Hotel.  From there the parade will organically form and wind its way through downtown, eventually making its way onto West Congress St. where it will head west to Mercado San Agustin, new site for the finale and where MMOS hopes a permanent new site for this ritual will be established.

The finale, always coordinated by Flam Chen, Tucson’s internationally acclaimed fire dance/performance troupe, is an exercise in high theatre (literally as well as figuratively).  And while this is certainly the highlight of the evening for many, for others the procession is more about the symbolic opportunity to march and pay homage to not just individuals who have passed but anything deemed sacred , including something as seemingly mundane as an institution of employment.

“In 2009, about 70 of us had to watch the decline of, report on and ultimately put the Tucson Citizen to rest,” said local writer and documentarian Dan Buckley. “That fall, most of us laid-off Citizen folks, plus a bunch of former employees from all over, came to the procession to march in memory of the now-deceased, longest published newspaper in Arizona.  And it was wonderful to walk side by side with the tens of thousands of folks who were themselves recalling the people, pets and things past that brought meaning to their lives. It was hardly a funeral dirge, but a community celebration of the most affirming kind.”

This year’s All Souls Procession takes place on Sunday, November 4, with marchers gathering at 5 pm. For a full schedule of related events, including art exhibits, next year’s poster contest, mask making workshops and the Procession of Little Angels, visit






Category: Arts, Community, DOWNTOWN / UNIVERSITY / 4TH AVE