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Arts & Culture

Día De Los Muertos: 'We're Always Remembered'

Some Hispanics of Mexican descent have never heard of Día de los Muertos — or they simply never cared about it when they were children.

But as adults, some have developed a new appreciation for this ancient holiday. And the perfect place to make those connections is a Día de los Muertos festival in downtown San Antonio.

Credit Lauren Terrazas / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
An altar honoring Bob Ross at the Día de los Muertos festival at La Villita in San Antonio.

Music spills out onto the streets, and crowds swell in the alleyways of La Villita Historic Arts Village on San Antonio’s River Walk.

Among the original artwork and fresh agua frescas is the largest open-altar exhibition in San Antonio.

Altars at the festival honor celebrities like painter Bob Ross and even famous animals like Koko, the gorilla that communicated with caretakers through sign language.

One altar even pays homage to the 10 undocumented immigrants who were found dead in the back of a trailer-truck in a San Antonio Walmart parking lot last summer.

But the most familiar altars are the ones that honor ancestors.

Irma Jimenez has designed and built altars for 20 years. She said many Hispanics have never grown up with the tradition. 

Credit Lauren Terrazas / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Irma Jimenez holding a photo of her first altar assembled 20 years ago.

"They’ve never seen 'un altar de los muertos,' " Jimenez said. "They’ve never seen an 'ofrenda.' And now they’re learning this, and they all want to make one at home."

The altars, also referred to as “ofrendas,” are an essential part of the Día de los Muertos celebration.

Items that are most often placed on an altar include photos of deceased loved ones, candles to guide the spirits on their way back to the land of the living, and even food to share with their dearly departed.

“You have the 'papel picado' for the air; you have the fire; you have earth,” Pacheco said. “It is also represented with my family offerings. Each one of them, as you can see, has something special that meant something to them.”

The altar honored various ancestors and even her beloved bulldog. She said the dog is now fighting off evil spirits while the portal to the land of the dead remains open.

Credit Lauren Terrazas / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
A mural featuring the names of deceased loved ones at the Día de los Muertos festival in San Antonio.

Pacheco, whose face was painted to resemble an elaborate sugar skull, said she embraces the holiday from more of a cultural standpoint than a religious one.

“There has been hundreds of people that have walked by today, and I’ve shared with them my family’s history, and I cannot even count how many people have actually shared a story with me, as well,” Pacheco said. “It’s been very heart-felting and rewarding to meet all these new people coming in from all over.”

Maxwell Jimenez enjoyed the festival in Maverick Plaza with his wife and daughter. He said it reminded him of how he celebrated as a child in Mexico.

“When I was a younger kid, I would celebrate Día de los Muertos en el panteón — at the cemetery,” Jimenez said. “That’s the way, at least where I’m from, we would celebrate.”

Credit Lauren Terrazas / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
El Tallercito de Son perform to a crowd gathered in Maverick Plaza during the Día de los Muertos festival at La Villita in San Antonio.

Once we look past the calavera T-shirts and koozies, Irma Jimenez said the tradition remains centered on the inevitability — but not finality — of death.

“I tell everybody that we die three times,” she said. “The first time is when your heart stops beating, the second time is when they bury you, and the third one is when they forget about you. So that’s why doing something like this, we’re always remembered.”

Lauren Terrazas can be reached at lauren@tpr.org and on Twitter @terrazas_lauren