San Antonio, when we created this idea of a citywide celebration dedicated to Día de los Muertos, we did it with you in mind. I’ve had the privilege to travel all across this world telling our story, sharing our foods and traditions. Those trips cemented my feelings: that San Antonio is special.
I’ve only left this city once for an extended period. That was when I went to school at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. A family friend helped pack the car and we drove the 1,800 miles to New York. I had never been on a plane and it wasn’t going to happen this time. When I drove to the CIA as an 18-year-old kid, it was my first journey into the “new world” and I wasn’t walking into the CIA as anything more than a Latino from San Antonio’s West Side whose family owned a small catering business.
After graduation I lived in California, working in kitchens across Santa Barbara and the coastline. But I was eager to come back home. I knew where I belonged and that my story was connected to my city’s story.
When I came back to San Antonio, I spent the next decades dreaming of and researching a concept that I called “La Gloria.” I spent much of my time immersed in the Mexican culture. I befriended many artists, viewed many cultural celebrations – none more so than Día de los Muertos.
My first trip to Pátzcuaro, in Mexico’s Michoacán state, was something out of a dream. The community’s complete devotion to Día de los Muertos awakened something deep inside of me. It began a personal journey for me to better understand my ancestors, as my grandfather Ventura Paleo was born nearby in a small town called Nahuatzen. His journey is one I am still learning about and working to understand, but my Día de los Muertos pilgrimage is even more special to me because of my abuelito. It led me to believe that our city could have that same devotion, that same spirit for Día de los Muertos.
This year is an easy year to mourn. We mourn those we lost because of COVID-19. We mourn the loss of time spent with our families and friends. We mourn a year that, as is clear now, has been a difficult one.
This mourning is what drove us to create the virtual river parade this year during the coronavirus pandemic. It is important to stop and bow in reverence. Our friends in Mexico understand that so clearly. This weekend is a celebration of all we have lost and a bittersweet remembrance of how life used to be. This celebration features the beauty of San Antonio – our dancers from Urban-15, the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, artists whose calaveras are throughout our city, the beautiful barge from the team at DreamWeek who captured the unrest we all feel, community groups who have been celebrating Día de los Muertos throughout our city for decades, and the personal ofrendas in your own homes.
All the beauty is what makes our city so special, so different from other places across the world. Next year when we are together, we cannot wait to share our celebration with you. Because we built this for you, San Antonio – for our special city. Te amo, San Antonio.
Chef Johnny Hernandez is a chef, entrepreneur, and founder and president of Grupo La Gloria and True Flavors Inc. He worked with a team of artists, designers, and event professionals to launch Day of the Dead San Antonio. San Antonio’s Day of the Dead Parade was supported by teams at H-E-B, Toyota, Modelo, the San Antonio Spurs, El Jimador, Hilton Palacio del Rio, and the Mexican Consulate. Partners included: KSAT 12, Visit San Antonio, River Walk Association, City of San Antonio, Center City Development, and the La Villita Association. Learn more at www.dayofthedeadsa.com.