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Tucson's Annual All Souls Procession

Updated on September 20, 2016

A Man and His Toy Dog

This man appears to have donned a costume and is having fun with his toy dog.
This man appears to have donned a costume and is having fun with his toy dog. | Source

An Annual All Souls Event

For over 25 years the city of Tucson, Arizona has celebrated an annual All Souls event with great fanfare that culminates with a large procession in the streets of downtown Tucson.

While the All Souls religious Feast Day itself is observed on November 2nd every year, the Tucson celebration has been moved to the weekend following November 2nd with two days worth of art and music events culminating with the All Souls Procession in Downtown Tucson on Sunday evening.

The event has grown over the years to the point where it now attracts over 100,000 people. Many of these people are from out of town as Tucson’s mild winter climate attracts many people from cold northern states and Canadian provinces who visit or spend the winter in Tucson.

The All Souls organization’s web page describes the purpose of the event as serving the public’s need to mourn, reflect, and celebrate the universal experience of Death, through their ancestors, loved ones, and the living.

The procession is the highlight of the weekend’s events and is the one thing that brings together the thousands who participate as spectators or parade participants.

Remembering Soldiers of the American Revolution

This fellow appears to be honoring the memory of American troops who fought in the American Revolution
This fellow appears to be honoring the memory of American troops who fought in the American Revolution | Source

Event Attracts People for Many Reasons

While the focus of the event has always been on mourning, overcoming or dealing with the death of someone close and honoring those who have died, the motives of those attending have been many and varied. A big part of the attraction and continuing popularity of the event has been the tolerance for the diverse motivations of those attending.

Many, like my wife and I, came simply to see and be a part of a fun and interesting event.

Some others came seeking to come to terms with the grief associated with the loss of someone close while others came to celebrate the lives of family and friends who have died.

Remembering Victims of Nuclear Age

Remembering victims of Nuclear Accidents in Modern Age
Remembering victims of Nuclear Accidents in Modern Age | Source

People also came to honor the memory of deceased they have some interest in or groups with whom they share a common interest whether it be soldiers of a distant war or fellow hobbyists.

Finally there were a few who probably liked the opportunity to appear in public dressed in a bizarre costume.

Whatever their motivation, all manage to enjoy themselves while respecting the choices and motivations of others.

Event Began With a Local Artist Seeking a Way to Overcome Grief Resulting from Death of Her Father

While the All Souls Procession has grown to be major Tucson event that attracts people from all over the world, it actually began in 1990 with one local artist seeking a way to mourn the death of her father earlier that year.

Artist Susan Johnson’s father died in 1990. She returned to rural Illinois for his funeral, but came back home to Tucson still grieving. Realizing that the traditional funeral that followed her father’s death had done nothing to help her let go of her grief she decided to use art to express and come to terms with that grief.

She found inspiration in both in All Souls Day, a day for remembering and praying for the dead which has been observed by many Christians world-wide since the early days of Christianity and in the Mexican El Dia de los Muertos celebration that was becoming more popular among people in the wider, non-Hispanic part of the Tucson community at that time.

Couple in Dia de Los Muertos Style Costumes

While not a Dia de Los Muertos celebration, many of the All Souls Procession costumes reflect Dia de Los Muertos designs.
While not a Dia de Los Muertos celebration, many of the All Souls Procession costumes reflect Dia de Los Muertos designs. | Source

A Float in the Parade

One of the Floats in the All Souls Procession
One of the Floats in the All Souls Procession | Source

With the assistance of her husband and a few other artist friends, Susan Johnson proceeded to put together a performance that ran at her downtown studio for three nights starting on Halloween.

Following the performance the performers and people who had stopped to view it formed a procession that went from the gallery to the nearby Tucson Convention Center.

At the pool in the Convention Center complex little paper boats, each containing a candle, were distributed. Each individual then wrote a wish on their boat, lit the candle and released the boat into the pool.

A Man Remembering His Deceased Parents

A Man Joining the Parade to Honor His Deceased Parents
A Man Joining the Parade to Honor His Deceased Parents | Source

People Requested a Repeat of the Procession the Following Year

While Ms Johnson had intended the performance to be a one time event to say goodbye to her father, people who had seen or heard about it started coming to her seeking help in dealing with the loss of people close to them.

As a result of the requests, she obtained a small grant from a local organization and used it to fund a series of workshops in late October in which she taught people how to make masks and paper lanterns. The workshops culminated with a slightly larger event similar to the previous year’s event.

Word spread and performances were repeated in the following years.

While this was and is not a Dia de los Muertos celebration it was influenced by some of the Dia de los Muertos traditions. Coinciding with the increasing popularity of this All Souls event were the growing number of public Dia de los Muertos celebrations that were steadily attracting interest beyond Tucson’s Hispanic Community.

An Organization is Formed to Manage and Continue the Event

By 1993 the number of people attending reached the point where it was becoming clear that further increases in and continuation of the event would require a more formal organizational structure if this increasingly popular event was to continue.

In 1995 fellow artist Nadia Hagen obtained a small grant and used it to create a non-profit organization known as Many Mouths One Stomach which took over as the organizer for the All Souls event. Many Mouths One Stomach has since taken on the task of producing and funding the annual All Souls event in Tucson.

This All Souls Procession is unique in that it is a grassroots tradition that, while borrowing from many traditions, continues to grow and evolve with each continuing year.

© 2015 Chuck Nugent

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