I come from a mixed cultural background. My mother and all the family I grew up with are Mexican-American; my father’s side is of German descent. However, my first memory of Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is from my middle school Spanish class. I found the tradition fascinating, and I remember traveling San Antonio’s Westside with my grandparents to search for pan de muerto to take to class. But we never visited grave sites or set up altars in our house as many Mexican-American households in San Antonio do.
November 1 is known as Día de los Inocentes to honor dead children and infants, and November 2, Día de los Muertos, honors deceased adults. Originating in Mexico, the holidays are a blending of Aztec and Catholic traditions dating back to before the 16th century.
It wasn’t until several years later that I truly felt the gravity of Día de los Muertos, when I spent the occasion with San Anto Cultural Arts, a nonprofit organization in the heart of the Westside. The evening began around sunset as we all gathered in front of a mural titled Peace & Remembrance. Pat Castillo of the P.E.A.C.E. (Putting an End to Abuse through Community Efforts) Initiative held the mic, and with raw emotion she called on us to remember a recent victim of domestic violence. The name of the victim was then written on the mural in the designated area with other honored deceased. Father Marty from Our Lady of Guadalupe Church led us all in prayer. We soon began a quiet procession through the neighborhood as we held candle-lit milk jugs until we reached the bright orange senior home where a large altar was already in place and decorated. As we approached, some added to the altar their own photos and memories in many forms among the marigolds and sugar skulls. We were greeted by the seniors and community elders, poetry readings began, and the food was served (tamales, rice, beans, and pan dulce). The DJ mixed soulful sounds, and kids danced and played. By nightfall the air was crisp and many made one last stop by the altar to pay respects and reflect on their own lives. This was my first true experience celebrating Día de los Muertos, and one I was so appreciative to have. The night was a celebration of life, contemplation on death and suffering, and at times a quiet space just to be in the moment.
The tradition of Día de los Muertos has been around for centuries and mine is just one of the many ways the lives of the deceased have been celebrated by generations here in the United States and Mexico. Some cities around the country have large public traditions for Día de los Muertos. Los Angeles, San Francisco, and El Paso come to mind. I came across this blog that includes a festive infographic about the holiday and how it’s celebrated across the country. Locally, if you want to see a memorable spectacle of color and remembrance, visit San Fernando Cemetery #2 at this time.
I find that the older I get the more I want to understand the past. Plus, I want my son to eventually understand his past and the meaningful traditions that keep us all grounded. Being a San Antonian, by birth or by choice, Día de los Muertos is a tradition that influences our cultural identity. Here are just a few of this year’s local celebrations for Día de los Muertos:
Muertos Fest at La Villita Historic Arts Village—Event includes the largest open altar exhibition in the city, original Day of the Dead art, living altar, poetry readings, a dance, and a drum and puppet procession, plus live music at Arneson River Theatre. Free.
Día de los Muertos Altar Workshop at Casa Navarro State Historic Site—Learn about the holiday and altars through crafts. All craft supplies will be provided. Bring a copy of a photo of a deceased loved one. Free.
Outdoor Día de los Muertos Event, 5:00-7:30 P.M. at Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center– Participate in art-making workshops, face-painting, a peace and remembrance procession, and visit community altars while enjoying pan de muerto y chocolate. Performances include the Guadalupe Dance Company and Academy, Grupo Animo, and Mariachi Guadalupe. Free.
San Antonio Symphony presents Día de los Muertos, 3:00 P.M. at the Tobin Center—Colorful music by famous south-of-the-border composers such as Ponce, Revueltas, and Moncayo. Arrive early for pre-concert activities for kids at 2:00 P.M., including an instrument petting zoo with symphony musicians. Tickets are $5.
Las Animas de los Muertos: The Souls of the Deal Storytelling Performance, 4:00 P.M. at Instituto Cultural de Mexíco–A bilingual storytelling performance dedicated to honor those stories told by our dead. Performance will also take place on November 7 at SAY Sí. Free.
15th Annual Día de los Muertos Commemoration, 7:00–8:30 P.M. at Peace and Remebrance Mural– In partnership with the P.E.A.C.E. Initiative, San Anto Cultural Arts will feature poetry and music in remembrance of those lost to violence and will conclude with a neighborhood procession.
Community Celebration, 3:00–9:00 P.M. at Rinconcito de Esperanza—This family-friendly event will include a muertos procession to kick off the night, altars created by Buena Gente de Esperanza, live music by local bands, free food, and more. The event is free, but donations are accepted.
Día de los Muertos Exhibit: Altares y Ofrendas Group Exhibition, 6:00–9:00 P.M. at Centro Cultural Aztlan—Community artists are invited to create altars in the gallery and help facilitate a dialogue that examines the history and traditions of this cultural festivity.
Muertitos Fest at Say Sí—This three-day event provides a comprehensive perspective on the significance of the unique cultural holiday, featuring exhibitions of original Mexican folk art as well as student and visiting artists’ work.