A skull titled Smile Now, Fly Later by Los Otros is on display in front of La Gloria to celebrate Day of the Dead. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The plan for last year’s splashy new Day of the Dead San Antonio festival was to bring the world to San Antonio.

With most travel on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic, one local entrepreneur has a plan to bring San Antonio to the world.

Entrepreneur and Chef Johnny Hernandez will present a virtual river parade the evening of Oct. 30, to be broadcast on KSAT locally and with 70 media partners throughout Latin America. Called San Antonio’s Day of the Dead River Parade, the televised event will feature 20 floats with 20 giant skulls, or cráneos, painted by 20 local artists.

Hernandez said his purpose is “to put the spotlight on San Antonio nationally” in hopes of reviving the flagging tourism industry.

“One important reason we’re doing this is to promote San Antonio tourism and our city as a destination,” he said. “The exposure we’re going to get is crazy.”

The parade was quietly staged on the river in the early hours of Sunday morning and filmed by KSAT for the strictly virtual presentation Oct. 30. Despite severe limitations on celebrations during the pandemic, Hernandez felt it important to honor the annual cultural tradition and give people a chance to celebrate, even if it means staying home to safely watch the televised parade.

In considering options, he said he felt the events of 2020 gave him no choice but to hold some kind of event. “This is the year we have to do it,” he said. “Even if it’s modest, or simple, or different, but we have to do it this year because there’s a lot of people that we’ve lost unexpectedly. From friends to relatives to cousins to people in the community, that’s what this celebration is about.”

The painted cráneos featured on floats reflect multiple cultural traditions drawn from Day of the Dead celebrations, with personal dashes of whimsy added by the artists. Muralist and painter Alex Rubio helped Hernandez by selecting artists to paint the skulls, and painted one himself in his signature abstract-stripe style with a colorful zarape twist.

Having already been filmed in the parade, the skulls will be installed around the city for public view. Rubio’s cráneo is on display in front of the H-E-B Flores Market entrance.

Ana Laura Hernández honors two grandmothers in her huevo-eyed skull, with clouds “inspired by the Gabriel Figueroa movies that constantly played in the background of my summers at my grandmother’s house in Mexico,” as she states on the official Day of the Dead San Antonio website. Her skull will be placed at the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce on Commerce Street.

Anabel Toribio honors the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg with her skull titled Dissenter’s Hope, featuring a female cardinal as a feminist symbol, and Ariel Luna Anais’ Como La Chicharra honors the song of the cicadas and twilight fireflies as spiritual guides for the departed.

The Chicharra skull will be stationed at the Hilton Palacio del Rio hotel, and Toribio’s cráneo will be at La Villita. Other locations include Grupo La Gloria restaurants, the San Antonio International Airport, Fairmount Hotel, and The DoSeum.

All skulls will remain on public view through at least the first week of November, Hernandez said. Each has a QR code that directs viewers to the website to learn more about the artists and their cráneo themes.

“I can’t wait to to see them out there in the community,” Rubio said.

Hernandez hopes art collectors consider purchasing the cráneos after the exhibition, with the money going to the artists and future Day of the Dead celebrations once the pandemic subsides.

Hernandez co-produced the debut Day of the Dead San Antonio festival last year at La Villita, drawing a raucous crowd of 50,000 for the gala river parade. Guest host Eva Longoria kicked off the event and watched as the barges launched from the Arneson River Theater.

There were high hopes for the festival to become “part of our San Antonio fabric” on the level of Fiesta, Councilman Roberto Treviño said at the time. But the risks of inviting a large public gathering were too great, and Day of the Dead San Antonio declined to hold its festival this year, Hernandez said.

“Obviously, we had hoped that this would be behind us by now,” he said, but he never waved in his commitment to holding an event in whatever way was possible.

Though no crowds will gather along the River Walk to cheer as festive floats pass by, Hernandez said he hopes people will enjoy the important cultural holiday from the safety of their own homes.

“What a year,” he said.

Nicholas Frank

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 an indie rock...