Jesús de la Torre gestured at his ofrenda, covered in colorful cloth, candles, and food. He was one of the many people sharing the traditions of Día de los Muertos at San Antonio’s seventh annual Muertos Fest Saturday afternoon at Hemisfair.

Dressed in a homemade skeleton shirt, his face painted with skull details, the kindergarten teacher walked his audience of a few dozen people through the steps of putting together an ofrenda.

“When you’re getting ready for the party, what do you do?” he asked. “I clean my house. My house is never cleaner than right before a party.” 

De la Torre put tamales on his altar for his father Jesús, empanadas de piña for his mother Leonor, and cookies for his father-in-law Howard. He lined the altar with cempasúchil, or marigolds, and asked for help scattering the petals that guide the spirits of the dead to the world of the living. Cempasúchil comes from the Aztec word cempoalxóchitl, which means “20 petals.”

“It implies infinity because look at all the petals that this flower has,” de la Torre said, spreading the petals of a marigold apart. “And the smell. When I first started doing this I didn’t like the smell; it was really overwhelming. Now I know, when I smell that flower, Mom and Dad are going to visit me.”

The four elements were represented at de la Torre’s ofrenda: candles for fire, cups of water, food from the earth, and papel picado – colorful perforated paper – showed where the wind was blowing. He also sprinkled little piles of salt on his table, to preserve the souls of the visiting dead, de la Torre said.

A few feet away at the Muertos Fest community altar, artist Mariana Vasquez burned copál, a pine tree resin used in Mexican tradition for healing. She did so to keep the heaviness of death from settling, she said. The cheerful bustle of activity around her also helped people celebrating Día de los Muertos from sinking too deeply into grief.

Though people use Día de los Muertos as a time to honor loved ones who have died, the day is a time of joy as well, Vasquez said.

“[It’s] remembering and feeling the gratitude of the time they were in our lives,” she said. “And those memories of good times, laughing.”

Vasquez helped put together the community altar that sat near the edge of Hemisfair. More than 400 people submitted photos of their deceased loved ones, and local artist Sarah Brooke Lyons formatted the photos and wheat-pasted them onto a four-tier altar. The altar was topped with a large skull crowned with marigolds, and orange flowers lined each tier. Vasquez said she thought carefully about how to lay out the offerings for the visiting dead.

“When our ancestors come from Mictlán [the Land of the Dead], they’re hungry, thirsty, they want to smoke, they want to eat sweets, spicy [foods], and they want to listen to music,” Vasquez said. “We have all those things representing that.”

Vasquez arranged savory foods, musical instruments, chocolate, and corn and squash around the bottom of the altar. She pointed to the generous servings of pan de muerto – bread of the dead – on the altar, both shaped like people and in round loaves.

“The soul is round,” she said. “You see those round breads. When [the dead] come and they’re hungry, they eat the soul of the bread. After rejoicing and dancing, they go back.”

Vasquez is a native San Antonian, but she currently lives in New York City. De la Torre also grew up in San Antonio, but moved to Rhode Island a year ago. They both came home to help celebrate Día de los Muertos this weekend after event organizer Faith Radle asked if they would return for Muertos Fest.

Though de la Torre observes Día de los Muertos on his own each year, he is organizing the first Día de los Muertos celebration in Jamestown, Rhode Island next Saturday. It’s difficult to find marigolds in New England, so he’s gathering up as many as he can while he’s here, de la Torre said.

“I’m really excited about that,” he said. “I’m taking dead bread back with me and the cempasúchil.”

Muertos Fest continues at Hemisfair on Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. Find the schedule of events here.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is the local government reporter at the San Antonio Report.