The Mourning After

When hijacked airliners slammed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon last week, M.R. Diaz was as horrified as anyone.

Diaz, president of the Chandler Coalition for Civil and Human Rights, was busy at the time, making arrangements for the third annual Chandler Mariachi Festival, scheduled for September 15, when he got the news.

But despite his immediate sense of shock and outrage over the attacks, Diaz was convinced that the mariachi festival should proceed as scheduled. The heightened demand for tickets (nearly 200 sold between September 11 and 14) in the wake of the tragedy convinced him that most people didn't want terrorism to bring their lives to a halt.

"That's what the terrorists want us to do, to go into a complete standstill," Diaz says. "What I worry about is people entrenching themselves in their own fear. How long do we have to sit and hide? When is the good time to start?"

Diaz's mariachi festival was only one of several Latino-themed events planned throughout the Valley last weekend, in celebration of Mexican Independence Day (September 16). But as the weekend drew near, Diaz began to feel increasingly isolated, as coordinators of other local Independence Day festivals dropped out, citing their concerns for the victims of the terrorist attacks. Not only had all other Valley celebrations been canceled, but similar events in Tucson had also been called off.

Diaz began getting calls from people, wondering if he was going to pull the plug on the Chandler festival. After the East Valley Tribune ran a blurb announcing that the Chandler event was still on, Diaz says several readers responded with angry e-mails that branded him unpatriotic. And at least four people called the event's ticket hotline and complained that the event was disrespectful to those who died as a result of the hijackings.

One of the mariachi festival's sponsors, the Arizona Republic, even asked that its name and logo be removed from a stage banner, which acknowledged the newspaper, as well as other sponsors such as Food City, Chandler Fashion Center, Hampton Inn and APS.

"The Republic said it just wasn't good PR for them to be involved with the event because all these other events were canceled," Diaz says. "So they decided to pull their name off it."

The Republic's perspective was shared by Ashland Media, event producer for Fiestas Patrias, the large-scale celebration planned for last weekend in Phoenix's Civic Plaza.

"There's no reason to celebrate at this point, so we've postponed it until further notice," says Brad Denham, chief operating officer for Ashland. "I'm sure we'll end up doing it in October, when it's more appropriate."

The ambivalence felt by many over Mexican Independence Day celebrations underscored the nationwide confusion over the proper mourning etiquette when faced with such a horrific tragedy.

Despite the urgings of political leaders -- from President George W. Bush to Arizona Congressman John Shadegg (R-Phoenix) -- that Americans go on with their lives, there was a palpable sense that sports and entertainment institutions were looking over their shoulders, each afraid to be the first to say that it was okay for people to enjoy themselves again.

Beyond the genuine grief felt around the country, the politics of grieving also resulted in some curious decisions. The National Football League's decision to call off all of last weekend's games, while partly connected to concerns about flight safety, also seemed to be a product of the flak former commissioner Pete Rozelle received in November 1963 when he let the games continue only two days after the assassination of John Kennedy. Rozelle later described it as the biggest regret of his 29-year tenure as commissioner.

Major league baseball commissioner Bud Selig waited until the NFL made its move, and predictably announced that baseball would also refrain from play until the weekend was over. But the most blatant case of public relations tiptoeing came from the Southeastern Football Conference, which announced on Wednesday, September 12, that its games would be played on the weekend, then reversed itself the next day, after the NFL decided not to play.

It was one of the small ironies of the weekend that an undaunted Broadway was running its shows only a few miles from the devastation of Lower Manhattan, while college football players on the opposite end of the country could not suit up and provide supporters with at least a few hours of relief from the relentlessly bleak television coverage.

But at least the football and baseball games can be rescheduled. It's a tougher proposition for an event so time-sensitive as a Mexican Independence Day celebration. Despite plans by Ashland Media to reschedule Fiestas Patrias, the effect will likely be as out of context as celebrating the Fourth of July in August, or Christmas in January.

Aware of the strong emotions on both sides of the issue, Diaz made a point of acknowledging the tragedy at the Chandler Mariachi Festival. In front of more than 800 people at the Chandler Center for the Arts, he introduced former Chandler councilman Matt Orlando. A somber Orlando told the crowd, "This has been a trying time for all of us in America and throughout the world. The coalition wanted to send a message to the terrorists that we are resolved to continue our way of life."

He then introduced singer Beto Rangel, a member of the Tucson ensemble Mariachi Tapatio. Dressed in black mariachi garb, Rangel delivered an impassioned, a cappella version of "The Star-Spangled Banner." For a moment, at least, grief found a catharsis in Chandler.