The 2017 Pixar movie Coco is widely credited with popularizing the traditional Día de los Muertos Mexican holiday. But for Javier Ruiz-Galindo, organizer of the new Day of the Dead San Antonio festival at La Villita, it all began with Spectre, the 24th film in the James Bond 007 series.

The opening sequence finds Bond – with requisite Catrina on his arm – costumed in a dapper calavera skull mask and skeleton suit, wandering through a massive Day of the Dead parade in the historic center of Mexico City. Gigantic skeleton-puppet floats parade down Calle Tacuba surrounded by hundreds of costumed figures dancing and swirling in elaborate holiday costumes.

At the time Spectre was made in 2015, that parade was a fiction made for the screen. However, since the film, Mexico City has recreated the parade in reality, creating a popular celebration from what had long been a much quieter, family holiday.

Now, Ruiz-Galindo said, “millions of people are very happy to celebrate a tradition” that the movie “brought to the world.” Coco followed in 2017, which functioned as an educational tool to explain the holiday’s focus on remembrance of those we have lost, he said.

“I don’t think there’s any damage to our tradition,” Ruiz-Galindo said. As president and CEO of VIDA San Antonio, which produces Day of the Dead San Antonio along with Visit San Antonio and the City, Ruiz-Galindo hopes his version will make San Antonio an international hub for celebrating Día de los Muertos, akin to Mardi Gras in New Orleans and the Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro.

“Day of the Dead is for everybody. It belongs to everybody,” he said.

From the Grave to the Stage

Fifty years ago in San Antonio, Day of the Dead was known as Día de los Muertos, a subdued, mostly Catholic religious celebration largely confined to family homes and cemetery plots. Families would build altars in their homes, then gather at the graves of their ancestors to tidy up, present fresh, brightly colored flowers, and share meals with their lost loved ones.

At age 80, Ramón Vásquez y Sánchez clearly recalls sharing this annual tradition, piling into the back of the family pickup truck and heading to the campo santo with dinner and flowers. In 1977, Vásquez y Sánchez revived the tradition of a public Día de los Muertos celebration for the newly formed Centro Cultural Aztlan. The first exhibition of 19 Altares y Ofrendas would establish what has become a 42-year tradition at the nonprofit center, continuing this year in expanded form as Día de los Muertos on the Old Spanish Trail (DOD-OST).

Rámon Vasquéz y Sánchez inside Centro Cultural Aztlan.

Today, Centro Cultural Aztlan is far from alone. Local organizations also celebrating Day of the Dead include the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, SAY Sí, Urban-15, San Antonio Public Library, Market Square, Muertos Fest at Hemisfair, the Pearl, the World Heritage Office, Centro de Artes, and Ruiz-Galindo’s Day of the Dead San Antonio.

With a glitzy, 10-foot tall “Selena Catrina” statue as its centerpiece, and glossy Coco-esque promotional materials and branding, some in the community feel the new festival overcommercializes what originated as a solemn tradition and overshadows more traditional, community-based events.

Due to influence from popular media like Coco, said Deborah Keller-Rihn, organizer of the DOD-OST event, “the whole thing has entered into the mainstream. Día de los Muertos became Day of the Dead. There’s no stopping it.”

At first Día de los Muertos wasn’t so commercialized, said Vásquez y Sánchez, with few skeletons to seen among the images of the dead and altar decorations. Bedoy’s Bakery did make a special pan muerto honoring the Mexican Revolution for the first Altares show – a tradition that continues – and because artists became involved, creativity and ambition grew.

Ironically, Vásquez y Sánchez was also accused of commercializing Day of the Dead at first, writes scholar and curator Ruben Cordova in his gallery notes for the Centro de Artes exhibition The Day of the Dead In Art, which opened Oct. 24.

His show of altars was also accused of being “occult” by one reviewer, Cordova writes, which Malena Gonzalez-Cid, current director of Centro Cultural Aztlan, confirms.

“No one before even wanted to talk about death or see skeletons,” she said. “it took us, the way we were presenting and producing it, to help make people feel comfortable with it.”

That comfort, in part, is what led to the mainstreaming of the tradition. “Once we made them feel comfortable and educated them, and they understood what we were trying to do, then it somehow took a different step” toward the commercialization we see today, she said.

“That part has been the hardest one for us,” she said. “Other factors [then] come into play, like money, or wanting to copy what someone else is doing. We are the ones that first took the risks of creativity, [on a subject] that no one else wanted to touch because they were fearful of it. It’s not until organizations like ours prove they’re successful, then everyone else wants to replicate it.”

The money factor is significant, with Ruiz-Galindo confirming that the City and Visit San Antonio have put $250,000 into Day of the Dead San Antonio. Centro Cultural Aztlan received $160,594 in 2019 annual funding from the Department of Arts and Culture, with an increase of 6 percent to $169,515 for the 2020 fiscal year.

People in Día de los Muertos attire stroll through Hemisfair last week during the 7th annual Muertos Fest.

Vásquez y Sánchez holds no grudges on not generally being recognized as the originator of public Día de los Muertos celebrations in San Antonio, he said, “because I think it’s important that this city goes back to its roots.”

True Meaning of the Holiday

Echoing Ruiz-Galindo’s idea that Day of the Dead belongs to everybody, Keller-Rihn pointedly asked, “But how do you put boundaries on culture?”

Day of the Dead is “not something you can copyright,” she said. “It’s a cultural thing. It’s coming from such a deep place in the human psyche. We all realize we’re going to die someday, and we all feel pain when people die, and we all want to honor people when they die.”

Chef Johnny Hernandez teamed up with Ruiz-Galindo to help ensure that the splashy new festival would be respectful to the tradition from which it originates, while still appealing to a large audience who might be less familiar with the holiday.

Chef Johnny Hernandez stands for a photo in his home. Photo by Scott Ball.
Chef Johnny Hernandez

“Day of the Dead is nothing new to me,” Hernandez said. “Some of my best times are definitely still being in Mexico for Day of the Dead. There’s nothing like experiencing it in the place where it began.”

Fifteen years ago, Hernandez said, he began visiting his grandfather Ventura Paleo in his hometown of Nahuatzen, in the state of Michoacán. “My family is from the part of Mexico where its true roots are,” he said of the holiday, primarily known there as Noche de Muertos. Not coincidentally, Hernandez said, much of the research for Coco was done in the region, particularly in the plaza of Pátzcuaro, which inspired the animation for the movie’s town scenes.

Hernandez said he is aware of the effects of commercialization, such as the long rows of Day of the Dead-themed merchandise crowding the aisles of H-E-B. “Probably half of it from China,” he said, laughing. Hernandez said the responsibility for respecting the tradition lies in “those of us who are aware of it. We are the ones that should be really leading and making sure that we educate the public and the visitors in what its true meaning is.”

An array of Día de los Muertos merchandise is for sale at H-E-B.

Hernandez compared the growing popularity of Day of the Dead to other holidays that have undergone severe commercialization. Years ago, he said, Christmas was a cultural celebration, with Santa Claus only arriving later, and Easter had no Easter Bunny, but people can still appreciate the deeper meanings associated with those holidays.

“If we celebrate [Day of the Dead] in a very honest, very informed way, we can say to America ‘come learn about it, come celebrate here,’ because the people of San Antonio understand its true meaning,” Hernandez said. “It can’t be commercial. It needs to be done tastefully and well-reflective of who we are.”

Both he and Ruiz-Galindo said they hope the broader San Antonio community will appreciate the festival and that neighborhood-based nonprofits and other organizations will combine efforts toward making San Antonio the go-to international destination for Day of the Dead celebrations.

“We don’t know, we’ll see,” said Gonzalez-Cid of whether greater synergy will exist between the various groups. Though she said Centro Cultural Aztlan was not contacted by the new festival, Ruiz-Galindo said community partners for Day of the Dead San Antonio will include the Witte Museum, Briscoe Western Art Museum, and George Cisneros of Urban-15, who will lead a traditional procession.

“This is our first year. We want to be very inclusive,” Ruiz-Galindo said. The Day of the Dead San Antonio website includes listings for many other celebrations in the city, including many mentioned above. “We hope that everybody gets together. The entire idea is that the city itself, all of us together, make this a wonderful weeklong event every year.”

Richard Oliver, director of partner and community relations for Visit San Antonio, said, “In San Antonio there’s a real recognition that the rising tide lifts all boats. So when a Day of the Dead San Antonio event is added to this wonderful cultural celebration that’s been going on in San Antonio forever, I think everybody recognizes ‘Hey, if this is successful, if it does lift San Antonio further into the spotlight, it lifts everybody.’”

Oliver pointed to an expected $8 million to $9 million in earned media value that the newest festival will bring to the city via international television coverage through outlets like Univision and Televisa, along with 39 million annual visitors to the city per year.

“They’re here for a diversity of things,” he said, and the weeklong lineup of Day of the Dead celebrations “is going to be a catalyst for real visitation in San Antonio, and for everybody to win in the long run.”

Time will tell, he said, but he believes “all the other events are going to benefit from that [spotlight]. … Everybody’s going to get traffic coming to San Antonio to celebrate the warmth, authenticity, and diversity of our community.”

Hernandez said he is paying attention to the concerns. “If I don’t do it the right way, I’m sure I’ll hear about it,” he said. “I feel we’re being very careful. I know not everybody will be happy, but I feel we’re going about it the right way.”

Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...