Many are familiar with the trick-or-treating of Halloween and the observance of All Saint’s Day beginning on the first of November. But one of San Antonio’s favorite celebrations is Día de los Muertos, or the “Day of the Dead,” which takes place on Nov. 1 and 2 with its origins just south of the border.
“Before the Spanish got to Mexico, the Aztecs, Mayans and other indigenous people would have a day to celebrate their ancestors,” said Carlos Murguia, co-owner of Pulquerios, an art and jewelry store. “They would bring in a skull and set it up on an altar along with their ancestor’s favorite foods, music, flowers and drink in honor of that person.”
Rather than try to eliminate such a popular celebration, the priests merged this celebration with All Saint’s and All Soul’s Day. Today, Día de los Muertos is still a celebration of those who have passed away from this physical world. People gather at the gravesites of their loved ones, placing decorations, mementos and food their predecessor loved beside the gravestone. Other people will design an elaborate and intricate altar that celebrates the ancestor’s life and passions. The following are some ways that you can celebrate the holiday here in San Antonio.
Muertosfest at La Villita
La Villita plays host to Muertosfest, a two-day celebration that includes live music, art, poetry, a dance/drum/puppet procession and altar competition. There’s a full music lineup with local acts headlining this festival, with conjunto-punk band Piñata Protest playing Saturday and Girl in a Coma’s lead singer Nina Diaz ending the festival on Sunday.
There is an altar contest open to the public with four prizes ranging from $500 to $2,000. If you’re looking for inspiration, check out some of the altars from last year’s festival. In order to participate, you have to complete an online application by 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 17.
Celebrations at Esperanza Peace and Justice Center
Leading up to Día De Los Muertos, the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center has many workshops that the community can participate in. There is a Shoebox Altar Workshop (Oct. 14), another workshop that discusses the significance of the altar (Oct. 18), a sugar skull workshop (Oct. 20), along with workshops for creating flower arrangements on both paper (Oct. 22) and fresh flower Cempazuchitl — a yellow marigold that has traditionally symbolized death in the Pre-Columbian societies (Oct. 31).
Esperanza also has a Día de los Muertos celebration on Nov. 1 that will include calaveras (skulls), food, music, community altars and more. The event is free with more information to be announced on their website in the near future.
Workshops, Altars and Dance at Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center
The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center (GCAC) has its celebration on Sunday, Nov. 2 from 5-8 p.m. The event is free and will include workshops for all ages that explore altars and traditional folklórico dance. Community members wishing to participate by creating an altar for the celebration can contact Yvonne Montoya, director of programming.
The GCAC website provides a list of features in a traditional Día de los Muertos altar that could be helpful for anyone wishing to build an altar to celebrate. In addition to having images of the loved one along with their favorite foods and memorable personal belongings, they suggest including salt (purifies the soul and avoids corruption), incense (to ward off evil spirits) and a star-shaped lamp (to help guide the soul to its home).
Día de lost Muertos Night Run
Put on your best costume and paint your face like La Catrina for the 4th annual Día de los Muertos Night Run. This 5k race on the campus of Northwest Vista College will have cash prizes for the top three costumes in addition to prizes for the top finishers. Register now to save five dollars off the $40 race day entry fee and guarantee yourself a sweet t-shirt.
Purchase – or Make – a Calavera or Muerto
Whether you want to celebrate a loved one who passed away or just want to add a seasonal decoration to your house, consider purchasing or making a calavera. While these skulls have traditionally been made with sugar or clay, it has also become fashionable to see skeletons acting out different scenes in an effort to show some of the lighter side of death.
When looking for a figure to celebrate Día de los Muertos, Murguia said that you should “Keep in mind what the person enjoyed the most, whether they liked dancing, music or even riding bikes – you try to match whatever the ancestor enjoyed.” Pulquerios, Murguia’s store on North Alamo behind the Pig Stand, has different muertos and calaveras for sale designed by local artists.
These lighthearted representations of death are one way to remind us to enjoy our time here on earth because we all ultimately succumb to the same fate. Murguia quoted a popular Spanish saying about what these calaveras and muertos represent: “Como te vez me ví… como me ves te verás.” The phrase translates to “How you look I looked… How I look you will look.”
Eat Pan de Muerto
If you are a fan of the Mexican pan dulce pastries, then you need to try pan de muerto (or bread of the dead). Available only at Día de los Muertos, this pastry is not just tasty, it’s also symbolic. On top of the bread is an arrangement of bone-shaped dough to symbolize the deceased with a small doughy circle symbolizing a tear drop that represents sorrow. The texture and taste is similar to the pan dulce that is available year round, with the exception of a slight anise and orange flower taste that gives pan de muerto its unique taste. Because this treat is extremely popular, you often have to place an order with a panadería well in advance, but I’ve found the local chain of bakeries Horno Misión San José to be well stocked with this treat — just get there early to ensure you can get some!
*Featured/top image: A young girl stand at the fountain in La Villita during Día De Los Muertos 2013. Photo by Iris Dimmick.