The recent blockbuster success of Pixar’s Coco shows that the idea of honoring deceased ancestors transcends Mexican popular culture. It’s a time-honored tradition in Latino-majority San Antonio, with Día de los Muertos celebrations throughout the city thriving each late October and into November.
Muertos Fest – the free, family-friendly two-day Día de los Muertos celebration at La Villita on Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 27-28 – might top them all for its grandiose array of ceremonial altars, live music, and arts and crafts offerings. Annually, thousands of attendees turn out with faces painted like calaveras and floral catrina crowns, bearing marigolds and pan dulce.
At the heart of the the festival is a giant community altar, festooned with a towering calavera skull, flowers, gourds, papel picado, and photographs of loved ones submitted by members of the public. The official Muertos Fest website offers a link to submit tributes online, with the warning: “We do our best to include as many as we can but it fills up quickly!”
Members of the public, including school groups and artists, also compete in the Community Altar Exhibition and Contest, with 45 entrants vying for $4,000 in prizes – as well as ancestral bragging rights in the Land of the Dead.
Throughout both days, bands perform on the Arneson River Theater stage and more than 50 vendors will offer holiday-themed arts and crafts. For the adventuresome, workshops run both days for participants to learn traditional sugar skull decorating and mask making.
Two dance, drum, and puppet processions animate the weekend event, Saturday evening at 7 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m., filling the La Villita grounds with the sights, scents, sounds, and spirits of the traditional Mexican holiday.
Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center
The annual Día de los Muertos at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center is a revered Westside event, free and open to all on Nov. 2 from 6 p.m.-10 p.m. with holiday craft workshops, a procession, pan dulce, and Mexican hot chocolate.
The center itself has grown into a “campus,” with venues in several buildings along Brazos Street. On the Guadalupanita patio from 7:45 p.m.-10 p.m., resident companies the Mariachi Academy, Dance Academy, and Conjunto Academy will perform.
In the newly renovated Progresso Building at 1300 Guadalupe St., voting rights advocate Willie Velasquez will speak from beyond the grave, through a new book by Barbara Renaud-Gonzalez and a special ofrenda in his honor. The book will be launched on the 30th anniversary of Velasquez’s death, with a reception from 6 p.m.-8 p.m. and a reading from the new book at 7 p.m.
The Galería Guadalupe will feature altars made by local families, artists, and neighborhood organizations, and also offers a community altar, which visitors can contribute to with photos of departed loved ones.
At the Pearl
The Pearl also annually celebrates Día de los Muertos, this year on the evenings of Nov. 1-2. Local and regional artists decorate the grounds with altars, craft vendors set up shop, live music plays on the Pearl Park stage, and a procession winds through the grounds from 6:15 p.m.-7 p.m.
Erika Prosper, wife of Mayor Ron Nirenberg, reads to children on the park stage at 6 p.m.
Check the website for a complete schedule of live music performances, with a lineup including Tallercito de Son, Conjunto Heritage Taller, Volcán, San Antonio Mariachi Academy, and Azul Barrientos.
The Lone Star Art District will pull together six gallery spaces, two dozen artists, a neighborhood association and one councilman for Paseo Día De Los Muertos, a free, one-day event on Nov. 2 from 5 p.m.-10 p.m.
The event promises altars throughout the neighborhood along South Flores Street and Lone Star Boulevard, at Concrete Gallery, Dock Space, Dorçol, Freight, and the Lone Star Studios, and performances by Urban-15 and others.
The altar competition will be judged by Councilman Robert Treviño (D1), who is also listed among those making altars.
Institute of Texan Cultures
As an educational activity, an Honors College class from the University of Texas at San Antonio is building a special altar at the school’s Institute of Texan Cultures, which will go on view Monday, Oct. 29, for a 6 p.m.-8 p.m. public reception.
Lecturer Alegra Lozano teaches a UTSA class on Día de los Muertos traditions and engaged her students to make an ofrenda combining traditional, modern, and interactive elements.
Though San Antonio most likely considers itself second to none for its Day of the Dead festivities, Muertos Fest notes that it was recently named only the second-best celebration in the country – after the event at Hollywood Forever Cemetery – by tourism website Tripping.com.
Hollywood has the advantage of its celebration taking place in an actual cemetery but doesn’t share the 300-year history of San Antonio, or its river locale. Tripping.com mistakenly places the River Walk is 10 miles away from La Villita, though, so wise readers will take the ranking with a grain of pan dulce sugar.