The Día de los Muertos celebration at the Rinconcito de Esperanza actually begins weeks in advance, with the dyeing of sawdust shavings in a range of bright colors. The shavings become a tapetes de aserrín, or sawdust carpet, essentially a 30-by-10-foot painting on grass made especially for the occasion.
The carpet will last only as long as the celebrations, a couple of days at most, then pass into memory, said Yaneth Flores, the Esperanza Center for Peace and Justice staff member who led the tapetes project.
“We let the elements take care of it,” she said, referring not only to weather but kids and dogs who run through patterns designed by Pearl Sanchez and an array of symbols like the sacred heart, hummingbird, moon and sun, turtle, and calavera skull, designed by renowned Westside muralist Mary Agnes Rodriguez.
“It lasts for maybe a day and a half, and then it withers away,” Flores said.
Thursday evening’s celebration continued all around the tapetes, with vendors selling pan de muerto decorated with frosted calaveras, along with hot chocolate, tamales, and handmade crafts in booths lining the Rinconcito’s open grass yard.
After a set of music by Las Tesoros de San Antonio, Flores announced the start of the Día de los Muertos procession to the gathered crowd of 100. Graciela Sanchez, director of the Esperanza Center, blew a toy trumpet and danced like a pied piper to rally everyone to march up Colorado Street toward the Alazán-Apache Courts, the oldest public housing project in San Antonio.
“The people who live in public housing are part of the community,” Sanchez said. “We bring part of the celebration to them and invite them to come” to the Rinconcito, she said.
At the head of procession was Luissana Santibañez, in full handmade regalia representing a Mexican tradition that goes back thousands of years, she said.
Her turquoise dress and headdress of pheasant and macaw feathers represent ancient cosmologies and essences, now enlivened by the group Kalpulli Ayolopaktzin, of which she is a member. The group, which meets regularly at Elmendorf Park to share songs and learn their native language, participates in community events throughout the year.
The Rev. Sylvia Vásquez of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church struggled to keep up with the procession because she was busy distributing candy to residents of the Courts, greeting each with a cheerful “Feliz Día de los Muertos!”
“This neighborhood needs a lot of support and encouragement to feel like this is a fun place to live,” Vásquez said.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Lupe Valdez was in attendance, after a previous day’s campaign stop in Denton. Valdez also struggled to keep up with the procession because of requests for selfies and brief conversations with eventgoers.
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“Día los Muertos is just respect for those who have gone before us,” Valdez said. “Of course I’m going to show my respect for people who have gone on,” she said as she hurried to catch up with the procession.
Inside the Casa de Cuentos (House of Stories), one of the small buildings occupying the Rinconcito de Esperanza corner lot, altares made by community members recognized lost loved ones. One particular altar brought the fragility of life into focus, paying tribute to the still-extant Lerma’s Nite Club, a Westside bastion of Conjunto music that the altar claimed is under threat of demolition.
“Lerma’s is a very important part of the community’s collective history,” reads the placard taped to the wall of the altar, among photos of Conjunto heroes like Lydia Mendoza, Eva Ybarra, and Esteban Jordan.
The Esperanza Center’s Día de los Muertos celebrations are also an important part of the community’s history, Flores said.
“This is in the heart of the Westside,” she emphasized, while also being, for her, a Mexican native, “a reminder of home.”