San Antonio’s locally-focused Día de los Muertos festival, also called Muertos Fest, has grown each of its first six years at La Villita. Now, for its seventh annual event, Muertos Fest has found a new home across the street at Hemisfair, which organizers say offers more space and room to grow.

The free annual event started small but drew more than 65,000 attendees last year, said Artistic Director Jimmy Mendiola. Staff considered several locations before deciding on Hemisfair where Mendiola said the event will “have a much larger footprint and a lot more breathing room.”

“We are going to miss some things about La Villita,” Mendiola said. “It is, after all, an amazingly beautiful space.” But after doing some tests at Hemisfair to see how the festival’s special lighting would look at night, “we got excited about really taking advantage of that open space.”

More room will mean more altars, which is already the focus of the Día de los Muertos festival, Mendiola said. Rather than commissioning specific people to make them, the festival puts out an open call to the community. This year, 50 stories of people’s lives in San Antonio will be retold on 50 community altars.

“It’s this unknown history that is shared by people for everybody to see, and I think that’s what keeps people coming back,” he said, noting several families have come back year-after-year to make it a personal celebration. All of the altars will be entered into a contest, which features a cash prize of up to $2,000 for first place, and a $500 prize for the best student altar. 

The altars combined with the music, food and overall local flavor is one reason National Geographic named Muertos Fest among the seven best fall festivals in the U.S., calling it the largest Day of the Dead open altar exhibition in the city.

“There’s something special happening there,” Mendiola said.

The traditional, plaza-scaled community “living altar,” formerly built upon the fountain in Maverick Plaza, will return with a large frame supplied by Artpace. Anyone from the community is welcome to register to contribute mementos and photos of their lost loved ones to the altar. The outreach has drawn around 200 responses so far.

“You’ll see a woman or father crying, standing over by the fountain with these images, looking at the picture of their father who they lost this year.” Mendiola said. “Someone will come over and console them. Nice, poignant moments like that happen throughout.”

The National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), also on the Hemisfair grounds, will contribute a giant 30-by-30-foot altar dedicated to Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.

The move also will allow an expanded slate of children’s programming in the Yanaguana Garden, Mendiola said, with the usual Catrina face painting, mask making, papel picado and paper flower making, and clay skull decorating with the Southwest School of Art. Children’s author Xavier Garza will read stories on Sunday afternoon.

Hemisfair visitors walk through Yanaguana Garden which is directly adjacent to The '68.
Hemisfair visitors walk through Yanaguana Garden.

Other community partnerships, with the Guadalupe Dance Company, Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, San Anto Cultural Arts, and SAY Sí, are hallmarks of the festival’s connection to its community, he said. A curated group of local vendors will offer food, trinkets, home goods, souvenirs, handmade goods, and apparel, including Barbacoa Apparel, which began as a pop-up Muertos Fest vendor six years ago, and has since become “San Antonio’s Officially Unofficial T-shirt Company,” according to its website.

“Small businesses are part of what we do as well,” Mendiola said. Several vendors from La Villita will make the temporary move across the street to join in, including Bird & Pear gifts and Capistrano Soap Co.

A full schedule of bands will offer many styles of music throughout the festival, from Mariachi to the Son Jarocho sound of Veracruz, the Conjunto traditions of Juan Tejeda, the Xicano roots fusion of Los Nahuatlatos, the Latinx punk sounds of festival regulars Piñata Protest, and many others.

Performances include Amalia Leticia Ortiz’s Canción Cannibal Cabaret, apost-apocalyptic roving band of anarchafeminist bards” at 6 p.m. Sunday, and a poetry hour earlier in the day.

“This mixture of people and expressions” make Muertos Fest “a real, interesting, unique celebration that can’t happen anywhere else,” Mendiola said.   

Sunday night, the festival culminates with a post-procession outdoor screening of the popular Pixar movie Coco, well-regarded for its treatment of the holiday’s Mexican roots and traditions.

A full schedule is available on the Muertos Fest website, with further information on performers, the altar contest, processions, vendors, and activities.

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...