A family altar surrounded by illumination is displayed during the Dia de Los Muertos held at La Villita in 2018.
A family altar surrounded by illumination is displayed during the Dia de Los Muertos held at La Villita in 2018. Credit: Edward A. Ornelas for the San Antonio Report

Bedecked with LED lights and their faces painted like Mexican calavera skulls, Jolie Green and Margaret Cisneros lined up in the procession Saturday, the evening highlight of more than 12 hours of Día de los Muertos celebrations in downtown San Antonio.

Green and Cisneros have made it an annual tradition to perform in the parade at La Villita, the epicenter of more than 20 separate events celebrating the Day of the Dead throughout San Antonio, as part of a dance troupe called Destino DanZZar.

The Nov. 2 holiday is celebrated in Mexico and various parts of Latin America, but not all Hispanic households in the U.S. observe the annual remembrance of deceased loved ones. However, as celebrations in cities such as Los Angeles and San Antonio grow, so does public awareness and enthusiasm around the holiday.

And Disney/Pixar’s release last year of the Day of the Dead-themed Coco has catapulted the holiday into the mainstream.

Coco helped educate Green, who had become involved in the annual Día de los Muertos festival through the Catholic school where she teaches, about some of the nuances of the holiday, which she had no knowledge of growing up in San Antonio, she said.

Although Cisneros’ family went every year to adorn loved ones’ gravesites with flowers, talking about the holiday was a bit taboo in her home. But she believes the perception of the tradition may have been distorted.

“Now it’s coming along to where the younger generation is bringing it back and the older generation is becoming involved, as well,” she said. “[Día de los Muertos is] not so much mourning or grieving, it’s to celebrate how much they did for us to be here. It’s just an awesome time we have.”

The festival at La Villita featured an altar contest with the most decked-out shrine earning cash prizes ($2,000 to the first-place altar). They ran the gamut from traditional altares to family members – pan de muerto, their favorite foods, and belongings displayed as ofrendas, or offerings, to the dead – to celebrities, including permed landscape painter Bob Ross.

Alt-Latino musicians graced the stages at the free event with local conjunto-punk band Piñata Protest closing out the evening.

Vendors sold sugar skulls and other Day of the Dead-themed handmade wares, such as catrina dolls.

Lines snaked inside the already packed Maverick Plaza as patrons stood in line to order tacos, gorditas, aguas frescas, and other Mexican foods.

Northside Independent School District teachers Maria Rangcapan and Alison Spangler, whose vendor booth at the event featured such $5 items as calavera keychains, said the festival grows every year. “It’s gotten huge,” Rangcapan said.

With the growth of the festival, Cisneros and Green hope to see the tradition carry on for generations into the future. It also gives them a bigger stage for their procession performances.

“We love to do this,” Cisneros said.

“It takes a couple of hours to put the makeup on,” Green added. “But we enjoy dancing.”

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.