You always hear about the mystery and spooky qualities of cities like Gettysburg, New Orleans and Salem. But what you never hear mentioned is the city of Tucson, an old city with one foot already in the grave. For some reason, things work differently in Tucson. To the outsider the city, the culture and the people are just different. I’ve talked to several people who moved to Tucson from other cities, even Phoenix, and all of these Tucson migrants agree that there is something different about Tucson.
Recently I was talking to a coworker who has lived in Chicago, Jamaica and Phoenix for several years. After living in Tucson for only four months he has already begun wondering what is going on in this city. At first he would say Tucson was the “biggest little city” in which he had ever lived. After a few months however, he noticed there was something completely different about Tucson.
It takes time to work it out. Tucson’s underlying soul is ever present and yet hidden in plain sight. It is both threatening and welcoming to outsiders, but always present if you know where to look. It isn’t a bad thing, but something which sets Tucson apart from the rest of the metropolitan cities in America. That thing which goes so easily unnoticed in Tucson is the pervasive presence of death.
Death is a reality for all of us, but the people of Tucson embrace that reality differently than most. Instead of fearing death, Tucson celebrates the inevitable end by embracing it publicly. Shrines to the dead can be found all over the streets of Tucson. Tragic victims of shootings, bicycle accidents and car crashes are all mourned openly in the streets. Bells honoring a dead child are tied in trees or hung from signs around town by the family. Not only are people encouraged to take these bells homes but it is considered a lucky event to even find one. All of these reminders are meant to celebrate the lives lost and encourage the community to heal but not forget.
Tucson isn’t just open about death, Tucsonans sort of celebrate death. The annual Día de los Muertos celebration (a Spanish term meaning “Day of the Dead”) has grown from a single day to a month long celebration in Tucson. The ending to this celebration climaxes a few days after Halloween with Tucson’s All Soul’s Procession. This procession is an annual parade in which people dress as dead relatives, skeletons or demons and then march through the heart of the city carrying pictures or tokens of those who have passed away.
The event, which turns the concept of mourning on its’ head, is celebrated by thousands of people every year. The All Soul’s Procession is in the town’s psyche all year long, like the ball drop on New Year’s Eve in Times Square or Mardi Gras in the French Quarter of New Orleans. People look forward to the procession every year and some people even plan vacations or trips around it each time the dates are announced.
Another typically Southwestern item is the “calaveras de azúcar”. An offering usually reserved for Día de los Muertos, these sugary skulls can be purchased year round if you know where to look in the Old Pueblo. Graffitied versions of the candied skulls decorate the city as well. Aside from the graffiti, large murals of animated skeletons or dead lovers are very present through out the city as well.
Tucson’s cultural heritage stems forth from a mixture of Mexican, American and Native American roots. Despite a predominately Catholic presence, Tucson still values its combined cultural ancestry. For example, around Easter each year a solely Tucson ritual is acted out in several location through out the city. In the week leading up to Easter Sunday, groups of devout followers dress as demons in order to reenact a story in which they try to take over a church. The battle lasts a week as they charge on the church and eventually gain control of it. The finale is a grande spectacle complete with cannons, a crucifiction and a large bonfire which consumes the demons, as well as an effigy of Judas.
Another uniquely Tucson story is that of ‘El Tiradito’. The shrine erected in his honor is the only shrine in North America dedicated to the soul of a sinner murdered on unconsecrated ground. The story follows a man who falls in love with his betrothed’s mother. He and the mother have a secret affair until the fiance’s father interrupts the lovers and shoots him dead. According to the story the young man was buried in the family’s backyard. Some people say the young man got what he deserved, while others mourn the unfortunate mistake of falling in love with the wrong woman. Skipping forward to the present, a large alter now stands on the grounds where he is buried. Open to the public, the alter is frequently visited by Tucsonans who leave flowers, candles and other reminders of those who have passed away while praying for the young man’s soul.
While ‘El Tiradito’ may be Tucson’s most famous shrine of this type, there are many more throughout the city. They can be found in people’s yards, on major streets, hidden down small alleys and in large free standing structures all around Tucson. Tucson’s history and culture do not shy away from death, but celebrate it in a way that other large cities simply cannot. While not Tucson’s only unique quality, it is arguably the one which makes Tucson stand out the most among the other metropolitan cities in the American Southwest.