Emceeing the main stage overlooking the Pearl’s Park green, poet Carmen Tafolla described Día de los Muertos as a ritual celebration more than 3,000 years old. That tradition was observed Wednesday at the Pearl’s first Dia de los Muertos event, joining the many festivities throughout the city.

The papel picado and marigolds may have been plastic, and lit candles forbidden at the community altar, but all the traditional elements of Día de los Muertos were present, including ofrendas, stilt walkers, calaveras, costumes, and painted faces.

The Pearl’s celebration featured altars made by San Antonio artists and organizations, including the Guadalupe Center for the Cultural Arts, which presented an altar honoring Tino Duran, the longtime La Prensa publisher who died in June.

An altar by artist Cruz Ortiz honors the migrant workers who built the original Pearl complex.  Artist Luis Valderas made an altar in honor of Linda Pace, the food heiress who founded the contemporary art-focused Artpace residency program and the Linda Pace Foundation.

Cruz Ortiz displays "Altar in Honor of All Immigrant Workers" for Día de los Muertos at the Pearl.
Cruz Ortiz displays “Altar in Honor of All Immigrant Workers” for Día de los Muertos at the Pearl. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

On the main stage, performers Los Innocentes sang and narrated songs, tales, calaveras, and “ethnodrama folklore” passed down from their ancestors. Guitarist and singer Binisa Zentella, who began performing with her mother Maria in 1998, said they chose mictlan music, named for the Aztec region of the dead, including well-known songs La Llorona and Allá en el Rancho Grande.

Enjoying a piece of pan dulce nearby, Linda Reyes said she doesn’t usually celebrate Día de los Muertos, but older members of her family do. As she gets older, she becomes more curious about the holiday, she said, but “most of the older generation is already dead within my family, so not having them to teach me their traditions it’s difficult. You have to pick things up here and there.”

On the Pearl’s smaller Parkito green, vendor Adela Arellano sold handmade flower crowns as Ay Que Cute, a virtual Etsy store that she also brought to La Villita’s event in 2016. Arellano has always celebrated the day traditionally with her family, she said.

“I grew up watching my abuela taking care of her altares year-round,” she said. But come November, the altars would be adorned with more flowers and food. If Arellano weren’t at the Pearl this year, she said, she’d no doubt be at home with her family.

Asked how the Pearl’s first year of Día de los Muertos festivities compares with La Villita’s long-running event, she described the Pearl as “more intimate, very relaxed. I enjoy it,” she said.

(From left) Jimena Rodriguez Moya, 5, and Isabel Fernandez Moya, 5, try on flower crowns for Día de los Muertos at the Pearl.
(From left) Jimena Rodriguez Moya, 5, and Isabel Fernandez Moya, 5, try on flower crowns for Día de los Muertos at the Pearl. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Next to Arellano’s tent, artist Davíd Zamora Casas gave a video testimonial about his memories of Pace, as part of Valderas’ altar project. Zamora Casas wore his own flower crown and has built many altars over the years, he said, including for his current Día de los Muertos-themed Time Out Of Memory exhibition at the Instititute of Texan Cultures.

Meanwhile, back on The Park green families relaxed, watching performances. “We come to the Pearl a lot,” said Kerrville resident Karina Gonzales while waiting in a long line with her son Luke Storey to have their faces painted.

Another long line for face-painting next to Arellano’s booth suggested where the Pearl might focus some additional energies next year, should the event become a new San Antonio downtown tradition. But, reflecting on her experiences this first evening of a two-night celebration, Arellano said, “This is good for a start.”

The free Día de los Muertos event runs from 5-9 p.m. Thursday evening at the Pearl, with readings, performances, and events scheduled.

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...