Friday evening, downtown San Antonio came alive with versions of Day of the Dead celebrations.

The Pearl’s popular annual festival drew throngs of costumed festivalgoers for its procession through the renovated brewery’s grounds, led by San Antonio’s first lady Erika Prosper, grand marshaling a parade for the first time.

“We’re such a bicultural city, it just makes sense that the entire city would celebrate Día de Muertos,” Prosper said.

Meanwhile at La Villita, Prosper’s husband Mayor Ron Nirenberg prepared to lead the first-ever Catrinas on the River Parade for the new Day of the Dead San Antonio festival, which aims to become a fall version of Fiesta.

Kicking off the festival, Nirenberg recognized that the new festival was one among many Día de los Muertos celebrations.

“There are so many organizations .. and cultural entities that have been celebrating and helping us to respect our past by remembering those who have come before us,” he announced to the crowd streaming into the Arneson River Theater as the festivities began.

Of the parade, he said “this is one way that we can illuminate our river and show the world just how important it is to celebrate and respect these cultural traditions.”

Corpus Christi native, popular actress, and parade grand marshal Eva Longoria greeted the crowd with a hearty “Buenas noches!” and represented the hopes of festival organizers. “This is going to be the biggest Day of the Dead celebration in the country,” she said, “and a large part of that is because of our deep, deep traditions in San Antonio.”

Longoria then asked how many Mexican Americans were in the crowd, which received loud whoops and hollers in response.

Grand Marshal Eva Longoria waves to the audience at Arneson River Theater.

Local luminaries such as musician Henry Brun and the Spurs Coyote mascot could be seen onstage. The Coyote, dressed appropriately in mariachi costume, led the crowd in a “Go Spurs go!” chant, which led into La Danza de Las Mojigangas, a traditional dance by costumed catrina and calavera figures.

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) was spotted sitting alone in a row of Arneson River Theater seats. Treviño said he appreciated the versatility of the river boats, which won a design competition in part because of their versatility, configurable as either passenger boats or parade floats.

Treviño also said this inaugural festival would be only the first of many. “Really, the whole goal is to get a 10-year plan to have this celebration as part of our San Antonio fabric,” he said. With widespread television coverage, including Univision’s forays into the city for coverage beyond the festival, “it’s truly such a great thing for the city to be seen this way,” he said.

Floats representing various Day of the Dead and Mexican traditions then set out down the river, received by cheering crowds packing the River Walk along the parade route, which wound through the River Center mall extension, up to the Weston Centre and back down to Market Street.

Glitches can be expected for any first-time event, and the Catrinas on the River parade produced a few. The Mayor’s introduction required a restart as personalities shuffled through onstage introductions, then the first four floats set out at a fast clip, leaving the rest of the floats far behind.

At the River Center Mall junction under the Market Street bridge, enthusiastic crowds waited in anticipation of the floats, only to be mildly confused at the long pauses between floats.

Once the floats arrived, festooned in bright, LED lighting in all colors of the spectrum, the crowd cheered with appreciation. Highlights included Councilwomen Shirley Gonzalez (D5) and Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4), in full catrina face paint, dancing in the front of the lead float honoring José Guadalupe Posada, the early 20th-century Mexican artist credited with inventing the original La Calavera Catrina image.

Other brightly-lit floats honored various Day of the Dead and San Antonio symbols including the Monarch butterfly, lotería, the military, and a clever pan de muerte float featuring smoke billowing from a giant oven. A float honoring Mission Park was crowded with glowing, colored gravestones.

Longoria’s planned Grand Marshal’s float appeared to get lost in the shuffle, as did a float honoring her nonprofit organization Eva’s Heroes, dedicated to helping individuals with intellectual special needs.

People in the crowd did not seem disappointed by lacking a glimpse of the award-winning actress.

The final San Antonio Spurs-themed float, ardent fans might hope, would not be representative of the team’s season results. The float sputtered to a halt near the Market Street bridge, requiring a recharge from the parade’s technical team to get the lights and motor back up and running – which was rewarded with a hearty cheer from the crowd.

San Antonians Jose, Rose, and Juan Sánchez live near the airport and came downtown for a Day of the Dead festival for the first time. As natives of Mexico City, they didn’t celebrate Día de Muertos as a family, Juan said, but his high school friends were talking up the new festival and he thought it would be fun to attend. Rose said she enjoyed the floats and the festivity, but the celebration didn’t compare to those in her native city.

Sánchez’s only complaint was that she expected to hear more music, more singing, and more celebratory raucousness in general. “You need to go to Mexico City,” she said, to truly experience the three-day holiday, which runs day and night.

Day of the Dead celebrations continue throughout San Antonio. Check the Pearl website for it schedule, and the Day of the Dead San Antonio site for more information about the festival, including a “City Events” link with information on other city festivals and celebrations.

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...