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

Before becoming commercialized in a James Bond movie, a Disney movie, and massive city festivals drawing thousands, Día de Los Muertos was largely a quiet tradition celebrated within family units.

Because of coronavirus pandemic conditions, the annual holiday is returning to its more personalized roots this year, with a few opportunities to visit community altars and watch virtual celebrations.

San Antonians will have the opportunity to contribute images, sentimental objects, marigolds, and other Day of the Dead symbols to community altars at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center’s Colorado Street Rinconcito through Nov. 8 and at Ruby City’s San Pedro Creek-facing plaza through Nov. 3.

The Pearl will continue its annual community altar tradition, with an “Amor y Esperanza” themed altar honoring loved ones lost to COVID-19. The altar will be created by Jon Hinojosa, executive director of SAY Sí, with help from other members of the organization, and community members are asked to contribute virtually via a SAY Sí app.

Bihl Haus Arts invited installation artist David Zamora Casas, noted for his elaborate altars, to create a coronavirus-themed altar for online viewing Nov. 2 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., and for in-person viewing with by reservation only on select weekends beginning Nov. 7-8.

With Love and Death in Times of Pandemic, Zamora Casas ties together multiple pandemics, including the global AIDS pandemic, which cost 690,000 lives worldwide in 2019, according to the World Health Organization.

In addition to the Oct. 30 virtual Day of the Dead river parade presented by Grupo La Gloria, other online-only events will include Muertos Fest 2020, which moved from La Villita to Hemisfair last year and now moves to KMYS for an Oct. 31 broadcast on channel CW35 at 7 p.m., with a rebroadcast Nov. 1 on the Muertos Fest website.

Community members are encouraged to contribute images of loved ones for possible inclusion in the virtual altar segment of its programming.

Emphasizing safety

The Kalpulli Ayolopaktzin community organization would normally be presenting its teatro ritual performances throughout the city in recognition of the ancient Día de los Muertos tradition, matriarchal spokesperson Laura Yohualtlahuiz said. Instead, she and her children will spend the holiday at her mother’s home in San Antonio, to recognize ancestors and lost loved ones.

“Our elders across the continent … have told us that during this time, our responsibilities are to take care of our home fireplaces, our home altars,” she said.

That means isolating even during a time when loved ones would normally gather. “The whole purpose of our traditions is to preserve life and to preserve our teaching for our future generations, and we can’t do that if we’re not taking care of ourselves,” said.

Kalpulli Ayolopaktzin will create on online presentation planned for viewing on its Facebook page Nov. 8, in part to honor elder Jefe Manolo Sánchez of Grupo Teokalli, who died from COVID-19 earlier this year. The virtual teatro ritual will maintain the tradition of Danza Mexica Chichimeca teachings that were exchanged through migration on this continent prior to colonization and settler civilizations, she said.

Urban-15 participated in the Grupo La Gloria virtual river parade to be broadcast Oct. 30 on KSAT, which was pre-recorded in the early morning hours of Oct. 18. Each year since October 1984, the performance troupe has staged its processional dirge for Día de los Muertos, and 2020 will be the first time it has been unable to perform for a live audience, said George Cisneros, its music and media director.

Normally, the troupe would perform at such locations as the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, or the Mexican Cultural Institute, or Hemisfair, but this year it chose Elmendorf Lake as the setting for its solemn but light-filled procession to honor those who have passed on.

Grupo La Gloria crosses Elmendorf Lake during the procession. Credit: Courtesy / Ramin Samandari

History and memory

The World Heritage Office of the City of San Antonio will present a two-day virtual event Nov. 1-2 focused on Mission Marquee Plaza and the Día de los Muertos’ tamál tradition.

Beginning at 4 p.m. on Nov. 1, Mission San José celebrates its 300-year anniversary with a discussion on the history and traditions of the holiday and performances by Mariachi Alma de Mexico and Compania Folklorica del Alamo.

The Nov. 2 Tamal Institute will feature an introduction by author Carmen Tafolla and a cooking demonstration by the Familia de la Torre. The 6 p.m. event is free with registration.

Also part of the World Heritage Office’s celebration is an outdoor exhibit at the Mission Marquee presenting the work of 11 San Antonio artists who gained access to archives of descendants of mission families and represented their history in painted images.

Curator and artist Rigoberto Luna said, “The opportunity to work directly with descendant families made [the project] all the more special because these stories are not only essential to the mission communities, but also to the fabric of San Antonio’s history.”

The virtual events are available for viewing on the World Heritage Office YouTube channel and the Mission Marquee Facebook page. The outdoor exhibit, with weatherproof digital images of the artists’ paintings, will be on display from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through the end of December. More information is available here.

Musician Juan Tejeda would normally perform at several Día de los Muertos events, but this year will honor the memories of loved ones at his home altar and at the Southside cemetery where generations of his family are buried.

Tejeda said he appreciates the creativity in people’s virtual adaptations to the pandemic. “There’s an ingenuity in having to deal with something such as this, to create new ways of communicating and putting it out there for maybe even a broader audience than existed before.”

Esperanza Center Director Graciela Sanchez said it’s important to bring the community together in whatever ways are possible.

“It’s been a hard eight months,” Sanchez said. Whether virtual or socially distanced, Día de los Muertos is “a moment to welcome back community, family, and community members who have passed away, and just to remember them.”

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...