There are so many losses in general and deaths in particular to be marked in San Francisco’s Mission: young people of color like Alex Nieto murdered by police on Bernal Hill, scrappy tenant and squatter organizers like Ted Gullicksen who died suddenly, and all those many thousands displaced, dispossessed, and sometimes done in emotionally and physically, even to the point of dying, by evictions of all kinds. There are, also, the intertwined losses and deaths, because they personally touch many here in San Francisco, that happen farther afield, like the 43 students (and so many more students and others) murdered directly and indirectly by the Mexican government, or yet another Iraq Veteran Against the War who ended his own life while stuck in a European country, if the suicides caused by militarism can be seen as an individual choice.
For all that San Francisco’s Day of the Dead has become a tourist attraction, Burning Man venue, and sales opportunity, it also, like the Halloween-day sports “riot” (see my “The Giants Won and Capitalism Is the Loss” at https://cbmilstein.wordpress.com/2014/10/30/the-giants-won-and-capitalism-is-the-loss/), is a space created by this Mission neighborhood, by its people who don’t want to leave, for publicly sharing remembrance, grief, and social relations that bind. It’s a space where we bring our dead to celebrate the power of their lives, what won’t and can’t be lost, in the most intimate of ways. We make loss and death visible, communal, so that we can do the work of healing, savoring those moments we still have in this place, and reaffirming that we need to resist those losses and deaths that could and should be avoided — even if we seem to always be fighting losing battles.
For there is a bloody class-war battle being hard fought here. Last night’s loud, proud “Our Mission No Eviction” contingent in the Day of the Dead procession was surprisingly large — far larger, it seemed, than the partygoer section; far larger than any of us had anticipated, joyfully so. And many of the altars sprinkled in nooks, crannies, and parks around the 24th Street area of the Mission captured the politics of “eviction is violence” alongside other violences, whether delivered by drones or police or capitalism. There’s still spit and fire left in my neighborhood, for all the sorrow of what’s being murdered by the private property relation.
Touchingly, too, there was the assertion of “we’re still here,” in our friendships, neighborliness, and shared pain. Walking through the 24th Street area in SF’s Mission meant running into many a familiar face and many an intimate altar lovingly crafted by friends.
The one pictured here, alas not yet in its finished beauty, was done by my friends Gemma and Ona Mirkinson, for their dad Felix Shafer, a rebel too, now gone for seven short months. These two sisters know how to follow their grief, through the maze of emotions that turn time, life, and self inside out, especially through poignant self-chosen and self-made rituals. The wisdom gained is evident in their eyes, even through the exhaustion of breathing once one has such a huge hole in their heart.
Like so many other altars, Gemma and Ona’s wove a web of their social relations, allowing for interconnectedness among their family, chosen and biological, friends, and community. The many photos of their dad were surrounded by images of other deceased loved ones, from friends to a family dog, to chosen family members who’d been political prisoners. And when I arrived to watch them set up, they asked if I’d like to add my loss. I penned my parents’ names on a piece torn from a brown paper bag, added another dead loved one, anarchist Murray Bookchin, and clipped it to their altar, strung on a chain-link fence in Garfield Park, with so many other altars, marked by yellow carnations and twinkling candles. Other friends added to Gemma and Ona’s altar as well.
Later that night, as we and other friends sat on the ground in front of their altar, two Taiwanese women knelt on the sidewalk next to me, asking about a poster I was carrying. It had “43” emblazoned on it, carrying the hurt of the students murdered in Mexico, and was made by my dear friend with Yo Soy 132 (Jose, Evelyn, and Gato, among others), who also had erected a large altar of posters, music, banners, tiny coffins, and two giant “altars” on the ground made of colored sawdust, carnations, and solidarity. The pair of friends listened intently to my explanation of the Mexican and San Franciscan political situations, and then they noted, “It’s like in Taiwan.” They told me about a student occupation last spring, struggles against colonization and the erasure of their culture by China, but mostly, that “everyone around the world, people want the same thing. We’re all fighting for our freedom.”
Such freedoms are large and small, as my new Taiwanese friends observed. The ability to speak or even learn one’s language. The ability to stay in one’s home and neighborhood, where change happens, of course, but not all sorts of appropriation, expropriation, and myriad other forms of domination and death. The ability, and space among friends, to share in the losses and deaths that are inevitable parts of human (and nonhuman) life — the cycles of life, which we find little season for, given all the tumult forced on us, along with a US culture of false happiness in the face of mass misery.
Earlier in the evening, as I was readying to stroll from my eviction-precarious home on 16th and Mission streets down to the 24th Street part of the Mission, I put on a black suit jacket. I dug through the pockets to clean them out, since I hadn’t worn this coat for a while. All I found was a small rectangular piece of white card stock. My mom’s name was hand written on it, in lovely script. It was a place-name card for her, from a cousin’s wedding last year on October 5, 2013. I hate weddings, but my mom wanted to go, and so I’d booked a flight for us for October 3, 2013, at 10:00 a.m., despite concern that her cancer-exhausted body would make for difficult travel.
She died on October 3, 2013, at around 6:00 a.m.
My sister Karen and I, in our numbness, decided to hop in a rental car the day after her death, on October 4, and drive from Michigan to near Atlanta to be at that wedding for my mom. Before the start of the festivities, I wandered alone to the garden where the wedding and reception were to take place, and saw a table set up everyone’s names on these little cards, ready to be picked up and moved to other tables for dinner. On three “Milstein” separate cards, there was my name, my sister’s name, and my mom’s.
I cried for the first time since her heart stopped, and hurriedly slipped that card into my black suit jacket.
Maybe the ghosts of the Day of the Dead have things in store for us that we can’t predict.
I’d forgotten about that card. I almost left it at my SF home, but decided to bring my mom, via her hand-scripted name, along for this year’s Day of the Dead procession yesterday — a day before the 13-month anniversary of her death, today.
I’d forgotten that friends would be setting up altars for their parents and others who have died recently, and what it would mean to be with them on this cold night — warm sustenance.
I’d forgotten, in all the loss and death surrounding me on a daily basis here in San Francisco, that this neighborhood isn’t dead yet — what’s left of it remembers how to mourn and organize well, until its dying breath.
Walking with likely thousands of others in a procession of those decrying the dispossession of this city, and in particular this place called the Mission, time opened up. We reclaimed what the people of this neighborhood made with their own labor, what capitalism, as it always does, tries to steal away, whether in the form of murals and festivals, homes or streets. Loco Bloco, a mostly Latino and other people of color ensemble, quite literally reclaimed the Mission streets for an impromptu dance party, thwarting efforts by the police to silence the music of this neighborhood.
We are the history of all those who now rest in power, and we are those who can grieve and resist well.
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(Photo by Cindy Milstein, altar for Felix Shafer [February 7, 1951-April 15, 2014] by his daughters Gemma and Ona Mirkinson, Garfield Park, SF Mission, November 2, 2014, which included this Rumi quote: “If you desire the self, get out of the self. Leave the shallow stream behind and flow into the river deep and wide. Don’t be an ox pulling the wheel of the plow. Turn with the stars that wheel about you.” Also, photos by Cindy Milstein of Yo Soy 132 Bay Area’s altar for 43 students murdered in Mexico recently and another altar for Ted Gullicksen.)