A woman celebrates Día de los Muertos in 2015. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Traditions gain power through respect and reinvention. The traditional Mexican Day of the Dead holiday is celebrated in many cultures, and San Antonio comes alive in late October and early November with neighborhood events, community celebrations, and contemporary reinterpretations of ancient rituals.

Altars are a major part of Día de los Muertos, paying homage to and inviting the dead to return for a night of joyous interaction with the world of the living.

“What I like best about Day of the Dead celebrations in San Antonio is how people choose to make their altars,” stated Jimmy Mendiola, artistic director of Día de los Muertos at La Villita, in an email. “They can be celebratory and whimsical, intimate and personal, flamboyant or simple, but they all reflect our city’s culture. They are a great collective snapshot into how we celebrate life.”

In that spirit, here are three special altars that highlight different parts of San Antonio’s distant and more recent histories:

Ana Fernandez Honors the ‘Chili Queens’

Artist Ana Fernandez used to drive a river barge. Now she is hard at work preparing the first floating altar display for La Villita’s weekend celebration. The floating altar “lets us combine a traditional Day of the Dead altar with a way to share the work in a new and uniquely San Antonio style,” Mendiola said. Fernandez will honor Latina entrepreneurs of the late 1800s and early 20th century known as “chili queens” for the spicy chile con carne they sold in open-air markets. In the 1940s, she said, just as the River Walk began to develop, city officials banished the chili queens from downtown plazas and banned open-air dining.

“When you make an altar, you’re supposed to want to draw in the spirits,” Fernandez said, with items and trinkets that will attract them. The chili queens might appreciate the bundles of money Fernandez will include, in honor of this early example of female entrepreneurship. The ghosts of these “original mobile food vendors of San Antonio,” as Fernandez calls the chili queens, will no doubt be smiling down upon her barge, operating on the waters of the River Walk each evening from Oct. 28 through Nov. 2, starting at dusk.

Luis Valderas Honors Linda Pace

Victoria Moctezuma Valderas has run a ceramics and flower shop that her artist son Luis Valderas worked in while growing up. Valderas’ son brings the skills he learned there to bear on an altar honoring Linda Pace, the Pace Foods heiress who established Artpace, the Linda Pace Foundation, and the future Ruby City art museum, forever changing the contemporary art landscape in San Antonio. Valderas’ altar will include generous amounts of red, Pace’s favorite color, and coronas, funeral wreaths that his mother makes for Día de los Muertos in the Rio Grande Valley. Following tradition, Valderas will begin installing the altar on Wednesday, Nov. 1, and it will be on display throughout the Pearl’s Día de los Muertos celebration (see more information below).

Carmen Oliver Honors Chuck Ramirez

Seven Days - Dia de los Muertos
“Seven Days – Día de los Muertos” is a work by the late San Antonio artist Chuck Ramirez in which everyday items convey a larger meaning. Credit: Courtesy / McNay Art Museum

The McNay Art Museum already has constructed a metaphorical altar of sorts, in the form of a retrospective exhibition of deceased artist Chuck Ramirez’s work. For Día de los Muertos, artist Carmen Oliver has constructed Chuck’s Ofrenda at the entrance to the exhibition, an elaborate altar including traditional elements blended with Chuck-inspired items like coconut candy and piñatas, according to the wall label identifying Oliver’s work. The altar is on view Oct. 26-Nov. 5 during regular museum hours.

These altars join many others featured in Día de los Muertos events around San Antonio in the coming week. Events are free unless specified. Here are a few representative celebrations:

Día de los Muertos at La Villita
Saturday, Oct. 28, 10 a.m.-11 p.m.
Sunday, Oct. 29, noon-10 p.m.

La Villita’s annual muertos weekend was recognized last year as one of USA Today’s “10 great Day of the Dead Celebrations” worldwide. This year’s event features 35 altars in its annual competition and a floating procession of decorated barges, including Fernandez’s floating altar. Other events include free concerts at the Arneson River Theater featuring alt-Latino music, the annual altar competition in which the 35 altars compete for cash prizes, and a special virtual reality experience based on Pixar’s upcoming Day of the Dead animated film “Coco.” VIA offers free rides on all three routes to La Villita on Saturday, Oct. 28.

Performers prepare to go on stage at La Villita.
Día de los Muertos performers from the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center prepare to go on stage at La Villita in 2016. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Esperanza Peace & Justice Center
Saturday, Oct. 28, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
Wednesday, Nov. 1, 4-10:30 p.m.

The Esperanza Center kicks off its Día de los Muertos celebrations with a Saturday mask-making workshop at the Esperanza Building. On Wednesday at the Rinconcito de Esperanza at 816 S. Colorado St., the evening celebration features literary ofrendas and calavera poems, conjunto music, a performance by Cristal Gonzalez, and headliners Los Texmaniacs and Flaco Jimenez.

Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center
Saturday, Oct. 28, noon-6 p.m.

The Galería Guadalupe features altars created by a variety of artists, families, and organizations (the exhibition runs Oct. 28-Nov. 9). Guests may participate in art-making workshops, face-painting, a peace and remembrance procession, and enjoy pan de muerto y chocolate. A helpful list describing key components of a traditional Día de los Muertos altar is available on the center’s website.

Performers hold burning sage on their way to the stage during the Día de los Muertos community celebration at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in 2015. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Central Library
Inaugural Día de Muertos Catrina Ball
Saturday, Oct. 28, 6:30-11:30 p.m.

A fundraiser for the new Latino Collection and Resource Center at the San Antonio Public Library’s Central Library, the Catrina Ball is inspired by José Guadalupe Posada’s famous 1913 zinc etching, La Calavera Catrina. Attendees are invited to contribute to a community altar, bid on artwork during a silent auction, enjoy mariachi music and a performance by Urban-15, and dine on interior Mexican cuisine. Tickets for the event may be purchased at saplf.org/events or by calling (210) 225-4728 ext. 16.

Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM)
Monday, Oct. 30, through Thursday, Nov. 2, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
Friday, Nov. 3, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.

UNAM’s Semana de Tradiciones offers five days of Día de Muertos events, featuring the unveiling of an altar honoring Diego Rivera on Monday, culminating on Friday with a guided tour of the altar, an awards ceremony for the annual Calaveras Creative Writing Contest winners, and a performance by Baile Folklórico.

Pearl Park
Wednesday, Nov. 1, 4-8 p.m.
Thursday, Nov. 2, 5-9 p.m.

The Pearl will transform its grounds to honor the festive Mexican holiday, decorating with flowers, papel picado, altars by San Antonio artists, a community altar, ofrendas, and sugar skulls, all in the atmosphere of live all-female mariachi music and a community procession with Guadalupe Dance Company stilt walkers. The two-day celebration will feature children’s crafts, readings emceed by Kristen Forrester and recent Distinction in the Arts honoree Carmen Tafolla, a conjunto taller, and complimentary paletas.

Muertitos Fest at SAY Sí
Thursday, Nov. 2, 7-10:30 p.m.
Friday, Nov. 3, 6-10 p.m.
Saturday, Nov. 4, noon-4 p.m. 

This year’s theme, “Tierra y Libertad,” pays tribute to the Mexican Revolution through performances, altars, and artwork, including three large-scale calaca sculptures depicting key Mexican revolutionaries made by students working with Mexican artist group Colectivo Última Hora. Tickets for the Nov. 2 event may be purchased at https://give.classy.org/MFest2017. On Nov. 3, the event features altars, food, artisan booths, and a family-friendly best-dressed contest, and a procession by Las Monas Performance Group. On Nov. 4, there is a family program of music and performances by Guadalupe Mariachi Academy, Conjunto heritage taller, and more.

As an educational institution, SAY Sí aims to “unite different generations, passing on significant traditions and sometimes reinventing them,” stated communications director Stephen Guzman. “Around our galleries patrons can discover details about fundamental Día de los Muertos elements, such as the altar, the Monarch butterfly, and the marigold.” Festival workshops on Saturday will teach traditional Mexican folk arts and crafts.

Mexican Cultural Institute (Instituto Cultural de México)
Tuesday, Nov. 2, 5:30-9:30 p.m.

The ICM presents a traditional Día de Muertos celebration, with a special altar dedicated to the victims of Hurricane Harvey and the recent earthquakes in Mexico. A performance by Urban-15 and its comparsa, and a tasting of tamales, chocolate, and pan de muerto round out the free evening.

Avatar photo

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...