Tucson’s All Souls Procession and Creating (Not Consuming) Culture

IMG_1041I went to The Loft Cinema last night for a special Dia de los Muertos screening of “Many Bones, One Heart,” a documentary about Tucson’s homegrown All Souls Procession, by Leslie Ann Epperson. I have lived in Tucson for about six years now and I am leaving soon to pursue a career opportunity in Philadelphia, PA (where I’m originally from). I have taken part in the All Souls Procession every year and it’s one of the things I will miss the most about living here.

It was such a pleasure to join a packed house at The Loft last night for this uniquely Tucson film. You could feel the energy from the creative community and how passionate folks are about the cherished tradition of All Souls. Epperson’s shots of downtown Tucson and the surrounding desert were beautiful and haunting, and really captured the heart of being in this place.

“Many Bones, One Heart” follows Nadia Hagen, the procession’s long time artistic director, and her partner Paul Weir as they try to keep the event afloat amidst tremendous unforeseen growth and community interest. Participation and attendance have jumped to more than 100,000 people in recent years.

I found myself cringing at just how grassroots and seemingly disorganized the event producers were at first. As the film progressed, the team behind All Souls got more serious about fundraising and promoting awareness around the event. It also helps that The City of Tucson has appointed a special event liaison, who works with organizations like Many Mouths One Stomach (the non profit behind All Souls) to secure permits, insurance, and more for smoother planning.

Many Bones, One Heart Extended Trailer from Leslie Ann Epperson on Vimeo.

All Souls Is For The People

The best part about the film was learning about Hagen’s ideal (and she’s followed through with it) that this festival belongs to the community and should not be funded by corporate interests or city funds. She vows to keep The All Souls Processions funded by grants, individual gifts, and local businesses. At one point in the film, and I am paraphrasing here, Hagen says:

You can either have your culture packaged and handed down to you by corporate interests, or you can create your own culture.

I love knowing that the organizers behind one of my favorite events feel this way. Kudos to them for sticking to their ideals and making this huge event work around their philosophy. It is wild to see a group ignore the lure of corporate sponsorship. I hope that Hagen and her organization can keep this up as the event becomes even more popular.

How Downtown Tucson Is Losing Itself to Development

At one point in the film, Epperson follows Hagen as she pushes her way through the crowded lobby of the Hotel Congress, a landmark hotel in downtown Tucson with a music venue, restaurant, and patio bar, that serves as a de facto gathering place. It’s the afternoon of the All Souls Procession, an hour or so before sunset, and already hundreds of people are gathered on the hotel’s patio painting their faces and enjoying food and drinks. Hagen is scrambling through the crowd looking for someone, and as she struggles through the crush of people, Epperson includes a voiceover of Hagen talking about how there’s no longer any place for people to gather in Tucson without being consumers. She says something along the lines of:

If you don’t have money to spend, you can’t be here.

And she’s right! The development of downtown Tucson is disappointing. It’s the same pattern that’s playing out in small cities around the U.S. The artists and entrepreneurs that have enjoyed cheap rents and held on through tough times are being pushed out. New commercials spaces with high rents are coming in for high-end consumers to eat and drink their way through town. Yes there are a few parks in the downtown area, but there are not a lot of benches or public places where people can gather, people watch, and just “be” without shelling out cash. I love Jane Jacob’s views on urban planning and Jacob’s focus on healthy neighborhoods where diverse visitor types mingle. Tucson needs to take a page out of Jacob’s book to help keep its unique culture alive. In “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” Jacobs says:

Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.

How can Tucson’s creative community survive the development of the downtown area and continue to create a shared culture? Will All Souls be able to remain an independent event supported fully by donations, grants, local businesses, and volunteers?

I highly recommend “Many Bones, One Heart” to anyone who loves Tucson or is interested in community, grassroots movements, and arts organizations. The DVD will soon be for sale and Epperson is currently trying to get the film aired on PBS and in film festivals.

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