Archive for the 'Oakland' Category



Dos Dias de los Muertos: Oakland Vs. SF Celebrations

DSCN3892It’s not Mexican Halloween. Or Northern Californian Halloween. It’s Dia de los Muertos, and it’s everyone’s holiday now.

You can’t escape Dia de los Muertos in the Bay Area. That’s a good thing. It’s a pretty bad-ass holiday, based in the Aztec belief of death not as a definitive end, but merely a continuation in a parallel form. Aided by elaborate graveside altars, souls of the departed return for one night (traditionally two) to kick it with the living. The celebratory approach towards death comes complete with a comically macabre aesthetic derived largely from a good ole’ revolutionary, Jose Guadalupe Posada (see: my first tattoo).

What makes the holiday fascinating to me is its endurance and evolution. Dia de los Muertos is the little holiday that could: millennia-old, it’s survived colonialism, Catholicism, and more recently, the United States. But while all these outside elements have altered the holiday, the fundamental spirit has managed to survive. Observances vary wildly, both within and outside Mexico, and serve to say a lot about their respective communities (see: my latest Matador article). Case in point? Oakland versus San Francisco celebrations.

The Bay Area’s enormous Hispanic population has two established homebases: East Oakland’s increasingly cleaned-up Fruitvale district, and San Francisco’s contentiously gentrified Mission District (claimed to be birthplace of the burrito). Both host huge Dia de los Muertos celebrations that shut down city blocks and draw thousands with marigold-adorned, incense-laced festivities. Neither celebration is traditional, in the Patzcuaro sense of the term, but neither are the same. They contrast as starkly as an SF hipster’s ironic mullet and an Oakland hyphy  kid’s synthetic dreads.

DSCN3846

International Blvd during the Dia de los Muertos

Oakland celebrates with a family-oriented daytime street fair on the Sunday preceding the holiday, this year November 1. While drawing a healthy cross-section of the city’s ever-diverse population, the event is mostly representative of contemporary Mexican and Latin culture in the Bay Area. Powerhouse Spanish radio stations, La Raza and La Preciosa, set up stages on opposite ends of the festival and vie for on-lookers. Local taquerias set up stands that pump out carne asada smoke, while DIY vendors push helado carts and set up raspado stands. Women hawkers cry, “Churros, Churros, Churros!” while others wrap still-steaming elotes in foil. Local businesses abut booths with corporate superpowers like Safeway, while non-profits erect altars next to those of neighborhood school kids. Dancers decked out in Aztec garb (the feather- and skull-adorned headdresses are bad-ass) break into spontaneous drum-infused performances, and there’s more men in cowboy hats and little girls in mini-skirts than you can count.

DSC_0381On November 2, San Francisco holds an evening procession that a jaded friend of mine has dubbed “Gringos Gone Wild.” True, the participants are largely not of Hispanic decent and, boy, do they get down. People dress up in calavera face paint and elaborate Tim-Burton-esque costumes that I suspect derive from Victorian Catrina dolls. A modest group of Aztec dancers leads the procession, which then follows with revelers of the purely San Franciscan variety: costumed people with politicized signs, curious interpretive dancers, bicycle-powered floats, and a whole lotta candle-clutching white folks. The procession ends at a public park filled with some seriously artistic altars—this year, an anatomical heart suspended by red nerves, a papier-mache carniceria, a parlor scene that looked like the inside of Edward Gorey’s head.

I can see how people get down on San Francisco’s Dia de Los Muertos celebration for not being authentico; I understand why others deem Oakland’s as boring and not creative enough. But isn’t that just an extension of the Oakland-SF rivalry, the cities’ differences demonstrated through the observance of another culture’s holiday?

I’m an Oakland girl, so I’m partial to an event where I run into about a dozen people I know. And if nothing else, the Fruitvale festival is thrilling for the mere fact that Oakland manages to hold a peaceful public festival (I remember seeing stray post-Festival-At-The-Lake rioters pass by the bottom of my block as a kid—that was the end of that neighborhood event). Events like the Dia de los Muertos celebration remind me why I love my hometown—though I never really forget.

DSCN3907At the same time, the Mission procession captures so much of San Francisco’s cultural landscape. Just when you get disheartened, want to write the whole place off as over-priced and gentrified, the city comes through with something insanely creative or beautiful. Despite the changing demographics, beneath the paling population and depressing socioeconomics, San Francisco’s still a city with soul.

And at the center of both of these celebrations is the fact that they don’t derive from, well, here. They aren’t American, have been brought over by immigrants and subsequently Americanized. Some shout cultural appropriation, and, sure, these festivities are a far cry from the all-night graveside vigils I attended last year in Tzintzuntzan. But, at the core of these modern interpretations, both stay true to the fundamentally celebratory Aztec approach of the holiday. And if that’s not survival, I don’t know what is.

There’s No Place like Oakland

3318186624_396e94a2c4_mI’m falling in love with my hometown. Again.

I’ve just come home from six weeks in Iberocco (Spain, Portugal, Morocco). And more than any other homecoming from any other trip, I’ve been struck with a swooning sense of smittendom—for Oakland.

Coming home is always bittersweet. I love so much the headspace of traveling and who I am when I’m on the road—more open and willing to roll with punches, the literal potholes and uneven pavement of shoulderless highways. I love the feeling of constantly learning, constantly adjusting, figuring out buses and city streets and how to say “thank you” in whatever language (“gracias,” “obrigada” and “shokran,” in case you’re wondering). It’s always a serious bummer to board a plane and know that that will soon slip away as I settle back into the familiar, a chrysalis of complacency.

But as the jumbo jet tilted and spun and made its descent into SFO on Wednesday, I had another usual feeling encountered when coming home: awe. Even in my dehydrated, swollen-legged state of sleep deprivation, I was floored by the raw beauty of the Bay Area, its bridges and mountains and tumble of cities. You’d think I’d have gotten used to it by now, desensitized to the rugged coast and smooth blanket of ocean. But no. It still gets me. And, surrounded by eager British tourists, I had a sense of pride—yeah, this is where I’m from.

My dad picked me up, and we chatted about exciting family developments on the drive across the bridge. My brother’s gotten engaged, wedding preparations are in full effect, baby’s on the way. It was one of those perfect Indian summer days in the Bay, and the skyscrapers and billboards of Downtown San Francisco sparkled in the lazy afternoon sun. If you’ve gotta come home to anyway in the US, I’ve always thought, this is about the best place.

And then came Oakland.

We pulled off the freeway, stopped at a light next to a woman singing along to the bass-rattling radio, hyphy dancing in her gleaming-rims car. My dad looked over at me. “Good to be home?”

“You have no idea.”

I love my hometown in a fierce, unexplainable way that transcends the normal no-place-like-home adage. There’s really no where quite like Oakland—at once diverse and vibrant, crime-ridden and corrupt, filled with the tension of violence and drugs, and with a kind of kick-back coolness that gets under people’s skin, infects them with this cursed passion for the place that won’t let them leave.

There’s a reason San Francisco is called The City, and Oakland’s called The Town: it’s a city of neighborhoods, where people say hello and chat with each other. I can’t blame the encroaching tide of gentrifiers for snatching up bungalows, sipping coffee on their porches and talking about how much they love their neighborhoods, their new city, their adopted hometown. Even for the newly arrived, Oakland just feels like home.

And seeing as though I’ve never lived anywhere but Oakland, it’s truly the only place where I feel comfortable, feel like I don’t stand out like the 5’10, tattooed, throbbing sore thumb I am everywhere else. (Even in New York City, I’m constantly being stopped on the subway, the streets, in Jewish delis, and asked where I get my work done—so much for New Yorkers being unfriendly.) Somewhere amid the dreadlocks and full sleeves, the mulleted vaqueros and the clashing-prints Asian immigrants, between the Crod-clad yuppies and the Southern-accented old men, somewhere in the seams of all that, I find this funny feeling of home.

Oakland’s not an easy city to love. My first Matador article was about that, and, judging from the comments, I’m not alone in either my love for Oakland or heartbreaking frustration with it. And, while I really can’t get enough of traveling, of seeing the world and experiencing different cultures, I’m fairly certain that, fuck, Oakland’s got a grip on my heart. I’m a lifer.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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