Día de los Muertos: Celebrating the Mission Hipster

After living in the San Francisco Bay Area for nearly a decade, I had never made it down to the Mission to see the Día de los Muertos parade and celebration. I guess my general line of thinking was 1) I’m lazy and 2) It’s a Mexican celebration, so I really have no business there, except as an extremely causal observer. Naturally, it wasn’t until last night that I finally exercised my ability to be this extremely causal observer.

Popping out of the 24th Street Bart station, I was immediately concerned. Not because of my immediate whiteness, but because of all those around me were very much white with the face paint on that people wear for the celebration. I should probably back up a step or two and explain to those who don’t know that Mission used to be a very, very Hispanic neighborhood. Oddly enough, my father grew up at the north end of it by Dolores Park and he also said that yes, it was definitely home mostly to Mexicans. At some point in the 90’s, this began to change. Kids who graduated from art school or were in to making music or in to any variety of things that fall in to the more creative way of life started moving to the Mission because it was one of the cheapest places in San Francisco at the time. This had two unfortunate side effects. One was that it chased out a great many Mexican families living there because these (mostly white at the time) kids were mistakenly seen as more upscale and thus for affluent clientele for the landlords of the area who could thus command higher rents. The other issue was that with the people who were actually creative came all the groupies–those with a bachelors degree in Art or English Literature whose only talent was partying with those people who actually did do something in Art of English Literature. Then the dot-com happened and the problem grew exponentially to point where you’ll see more “ironic” mullets and people paying $5 for a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon at a bar (because dude, it’s sooo White Trash) than you will blue collar, industrious families from Mexico and other Latino countries. Something that I feel is unfortunate because these white kids, who most commonly called hipsters, are just whitewashing out the culture and history that was in the area.

But back to the Día as I was making my way through it with camera and other photo takers around me. As sure as I had figured, there was a flood of white people in the parade. Don’t get me wrong, I fully believe that it is a wonderful thing to admire the culture of others, but these folks weren’t doing that. Beyond the throngs of hipsters with their “traditional” face paint on, there was the constant smell of beer coming from people, others with “Impeach Bush” and anti-war signs, couples chatting not-so-silently with one another about hooking up later on. So overall, my impression from the procession was that this is just another cultural holiday that white folk have used as an excuse to get drunk and wander about under the guise of some larger cultural awareness. This seemed to be lost on the few Mexican families I did see who were trying to take part only to be beaten back by throngs of very non-Latino hipsters.

There was one silver lining in all of this, which is the only reason I’d see it again next year, and that was the shrines that people had put up at Garfield Square. These were insanely cool, interesting, and something I could respect a great deal. I took a lot less photos than I would have though because, well… the light wasn’t so good and also there is something of a transcendent pall that comes over you as the reality of the situation sinks in. You see that you’re walking through remembrances of the departed and as opposed to the hard, cold, stone tombstones that are common for we white folk in the large empty fields we call graveyards, these are personal. There were shoes of the departed and toys of children that were lost and any magnitude of personal effigy that made the setting something more. Naturally, it would have been super if some grounds keeper didn’t think that watering the field before the weekend was going to be a great idea that quickly transformed the grounds into a muddy soup, but even still, the emotion of the shrines wasn’t lost.