SAISD Student Altar at the Pearl Brewery.
Children run past the SAISD Student Altar at the at Día de los Muertos celebration at the Pearl. Credit: Michael Cirlos for the San Antonio Report

Ideal fall weather greeted an estimated 3,000 attendees gathered Friday evening at the Pearl for its annual Día de los Muertos celebration, in its second year already a downtown San Antonio tradition.

The Pearl bills its free two-day event as family-friendly, and kids could be spotted throughout the grounds dressed in muertos-themed regalia, including catrina faces and Halloween costumes.

Among altars made by San Antonio artists Cruz Ortiz, Al Rendon, and Regina Moya was a new addition, a special four-sided altar built by 1,300 K-8th graders from Lamar Elementary and Bonham, Hawthorne, and Mark Twain Dual Language academies in San Antonio Independent School District. An art teacher from each school worked with SAISD parent and community consultant Martha Martinez-Flores, who works with the Pearl on its Dia de los Muertos activities.

Each school honored a local hero, including Alamo savior Adina De Zavala, voting rights advocates Choco Meza and Willie Velazquez, and family pets – the subjects decided upon by the students themselves.

Lamar sixth-grader Gabriela Aureli contributed an ofrenda honoring Fluffy, a spirit-puppy who was a cat in a former life. Mark Twain third-grader Benicio De Leon made a papier-mâché sugar skull dog head, and Gabriela’s classmate Marisol painted a cat skeleton in stark, contrasting black and white.

Artist Cristina Sosa Noriega contributed her own altar to the Pearl’s Día de los Muertos celebration last year, and as an SAISD parent helped support the connection with the Pearl this year, which resulted in the collaborative altar.

“The kids are so proud of it. It’s beautiful,” she said. Her own daughter Luz, a third-grader at Mark Twain, contributed a cigar-box ofrenda honoring Velazquez to the SAISD altar.

This year, Noriega coordinated the Pearl’s Community Altar, which has attracted thousands more contributors than previous years, she said. Once word got out on social media, members of the public flooded the altar with images and remembrances of their deceased loved ones, such that Noriega had to add side panels to the main altar and a clothesline around the altar to accommodate all the offerings.

The Community Altar at the Pearl Brewery.
The Community Altar. Credit: Michael Cirlos for the San Antonio Report

“This year, it went kind of crazy,” she said. “It’s been awesome to see. Every day we’re adapting to make it bigger and bigger.

“But the Pearl’s always busy,” said Noriega’s daughter Luz.

For  the community altar, the mother-and-daughter team contributed a photo of Noriega’s father-in-law, Francisco Pancho Noriega, whom Noriega said she never had the chance to meet.

Nearby, Rachel Hoffmeyer and fellow DoSeum discovery leader Jessica Thompson worked with children to construct shadow puppets at the DoSeum tent, one of several workshop-style tents offering artmaking activities for kids. The kids began with a printed calavera skeleton and worked with Hoffmeyer to make articulated puppets, then animated them by hand behind a back-lighted screen for the enjoyment of passersby.

The Doseum Shadow Puppet tent at the Pearl Brewery.
The Doseum Shadow Puppet tent at the Pearl Brewery. Credit: Michael Cirlos for the San Antonio Report

Thompson sported a half-catrina face painted at the booth next door, in the DoSeum’s signature colors of turquoise, purple, and orange. More than 50 festival goers of all ages waited in line for their own visages to be rendered as blanched-white catrinas or with other muertos-themed decor.

In a quieter locale off the main square, Pearl artist-in-residence Karima Muyaes welcomed visitors to the Galería Pearl, to view her special Día de los Muertos-themed installation. Her altar features a large painting commemorating 43 Mexican students from the Ayotzinapa teachers’ college disappeared by Guerrero state police in 2014.

The painting itself functions as an “Empty Sepulture,” as its placard reads, much like the downtown Cenotaph commemorating absent Alamo heroes.

As a visitor from Mexico City, Muyaes said the Pearl celebration, with its dancing gigantes, conjunto music, and pan de muerto differs from traditional celebrations back home. She said her impression is that the modern version is more about fun and colorful iconography than the older, more private and reverent holiday from which it derives.

“The original way, it’s a very private thing,” she said. “It’s a more spiritual thing. But now, it’s changed.”

Back home, she said, family members would gather in cemeteries at the graves of their deceased loved ones, with offerings of things their relatives enjoyed while alive, like tequila, cigarettes, and mole.

The new way is not so much about tradition, but “it’s very fun. I don’t know if people know what it means that they’re doing, but it’s fun. It’s colorful.”

Muyaes’ painted skulls, paper collages, and marigold-decorated altar will be on view after the Día de los Muertos celebration ends, until Nov. 11.

As Muyaes spoke, hundreds of families gathered on the Pearl Park’s artificial turf lawn to hear student musicians of the San Antonio Mariachi Academy, introduced by local bon vivant Michael Quintanilla dressed in full Día de los Muertos regalia.

Behind the main stage, a colorful sugar skull mural by tattoo artist Kelly Edwards attracted a regular stream of selfie-takers, who paused amidst the raucous celebration around them to make joyful images that might one day, long into the future, become ofrendas by loved ones remembering their ancestors.

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Nicholas Frank

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...