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San Antonio’s Día de los Muertos altars reveal the beauty of life

Maribel Gardea poses with her family at Dia de los Muertos Festival in Hemisfair Park. “This year, we chose to honor my husband's great grandfather and great grandmother. But it's more of a symbolism of what we imagine them to be. So they would always kind of be in their rockers, in the garden.”
Jiawen Chen
Texas Public Radio
Mariel Gardea poses with her family at Dia de los Muertos Festival in Hemisfair Park. “This year, we chose to honor my husband's great grandfather and great grandmother. But it's more of a symbolism of what we imagine them to be. So they would always kind of be in their rockers, in the garden.”

Día de los Muertos is a millenia-old tradition, with roots in indigenous Mexico, for honoring the memory and souls of departed loved ones. It is not Mexican Halloween, emphasized Williams Sandria, an 8th grader at Woodlawn Academy. Instead, he said it “is meant for celebrating the dead with food, drinks, and parties the dead enjoyed.”

Once seen as dark and occult, its popularity is growing in the U.S. as new generations embrace the holiday to joyfully and respectfully celebrate past lives.

“We’ve had to fight perceptions that it was something macabre,” said Malena Gonzalez-Cid, the executive director of Centro Cultural Aztlan, which will host their 44th annual exhibit to honor the holiday this coming week.

One of its most prominent customs is setting up altars to honor relatives, friends, and even pets who have died. Read on to view the diverse altars throughout San Antonio whose decor, stories and traditions remind us that in commemorating death, we encounter the beauty of life.

Common Elements Found on an Altar

Depending on space, a more traditional altar is either composed of seven tiers, representing the Seven Deadly Sins, or three tiers, representing the Holy Trinity. They usually contain representations of the four elements. Wind is represented by the holes in papel picado (explained below). Water is typically poured in a cup and placed centrally. Earth is represented with plants and vegetables or sometimes literally sand or dirt. Fire is represented with candles.

  • Cempasuchil [sim - pah - SOO - chee]: the Mexican word for ‘marigold’ derived from the nahuatl language; typically blooming around this time of year, the strong scent is said to attract souls of the dead; some people will make paths for the souls with the flower’s petals
  • Calaveras: skulls that represent those who have passed made out of a sugar merengue mixture and brightly decorated; a continuation of an Aztec practice who used to make representations of their gods out of amaranth seeds and honey
  • Monarch butterflies: migrating back to their wintering spot in Michoacan, Mexico at this time of year, they are said to represent the souls of the dead
  • Xoloitzcuincli [show-low-eats-QUEEN-clee]: a breed of dog that is said to guide souls along the journey to the afterlife; both skeletons and clay figures of the dog have been found in ancient burial sites in Mexico
  • Pan de muerto: a traditional bread made as an offering to the dead, covered by four thick lines and a sphere to represent bones and a skull
  • Papel picado: the brightly colored, intricately cut tissue paper hung for decoration with holes to allow souls to travel through them
  • Water: to help slake the thirst of souls who have made the long journey to the afterlife
  • Ofrenda: food, drink, and other treats placed on the altar as a tribute to the people being commemorated there; usually people place items that were favorites of their loved ones

Tiers numbered from top (1) to bottom (6).
Daniel Ramirez
Texas Public Radio
Tiers numbered from top (1) to bottom (6).

Jen Negrete, household altar on display at Centro Cultural Aztlan: “My mom came from that generation that had their culture suppressed. After high school I started discovering it and celebrating it.”

“My family didn’t actively make an altar or any of that. It wasn’t until I went to Mexico and experienced it firsthand is when I started building altars...Just actually experiencing it firsthand in Mexico was spiritual and impactful...We drove to Patzcuaro in Michoacan...and we passed by the graveyards. The graveyards were beautifully decorated with marigold, so I stopped to get out and look around. Just seeing how the families decorated the gravesites, how they brought food, they spend their time there celebrating their ancestors. It was like a fiesta...you could tell they had a good time. It was a good reminder to me that death is -- you’re missing the person, but you shouldn’t mourn their death, you should celebrate their life.”

Arch of paper marigolds with monarch butterflies, top

“I’ve been doing different Tik Toks for Day of the Dead [showing] how to make the arch and paper flowers. It’s been nice to share and educate people about it.”

Structure composed of cinder blocks and boards, partly as a nod to common Mexican construction methods

Statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus that her grandmother used to place at the entry of her house, tier 1

Ceramic yellow rose, tier 1

“That was my grandmother’s. She said she bought it because I was the only granddaughter from Texas. So when she passed away I inherited her Yellow Rose.”

Photo of her mother, tier 2 in the middle with a white frame

“I always actively participated in Dia de los Muertos but it wasn’t until 2012 [when my mother died] when I actually started actively building my own altar.”

“When she passed away and I was cleaning her house, that bottle was still in the wrapper. I hated that perfume,” she laughed. “But she loved it.”

Photo of her aunt with lei wrapped around bottom, tier 2 on the right

“My aunt loved to hula. She was Mexican but her husband was stationed in Hawaii, so while they were stationed there she learned how to hula. She actually came back to San Antonio to teach hula. So I bought the lei for her.”

Dish that friend Miguel made in which she puts beef jerky since they would always eat it together when she went to visit him in Mexico, tier 3 on the far left

Bowling pin chew toy for that belonged to deceased dog Frida, tier 4 on far right

Translated partially from Spanish

Adriana Netro, in the kitchen of her Northwest side home: “I keep my altar up all year round because that is what gives me the strength to keep going with my life. Even though they are dead, they have been teaching me through death how I can live this life. So every time that I am sad, or I feel lonely, I feel in despair, sometimes I feel really happy, I can come here and share with them. And I know, I can feel that they are with me, all of them. Even my dad who didn’t share a lot of times with me, he is there...they are alive because they live in my heart. And I believe they won’t die until the last person that knows about them is gone.”

Photo of past partner Victoria who died of cancer, middle shelf on the right side

“She was a chef, and that day they were outside at the Marriott Riverwalk...she was just taking a break. Then somebody showed her the hat, and she wore it. This person took a picture of her because they loved the way she looked, and I think they had it in a magazine…I chose that picture because that represents her...She is very passionate with her cooking...[especially] Mexican cooking.”

Collars of past dogs, hanging from middle shelf on left

Vial of sand from the Holy Land for her Syrian immigrant father, bottom shelf on left side

Clay hand painted blue and covered with lists of the names of people, on the table in the center

“All these names belong to people that are sick. That’s why this hand is a healing hand because it belongs to a doctor [who made it].”

Photo of the choir director at her childhood church who inspired her to become a music teacher, bottom shelf in the center with red shawl

Angel figure representing friend Carlos, hanging from middle shelf on right side

“He was an architecture student in the ‘70s...I had forgotten about him for many years but recently he came to me in a dream...He was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of cancer. The last time I went to visit him, I could barely recognize him except for his eyes...He had changed so much but his eyes were what told me that it was him.”

Ramon Vasquez y Sanchez Painter and Artist: “And what we do, what we did was do it where we did a gallery exhibit. It was a cultural thing, the thing that was supposed to be very, very, very special. I think that it's kind of changed, though, well to now because of the fact that it's very commercialized.”

There is a big difference between the other Dia de los Muertos here in San Antonio as the one that they do in Mexico. And I think that people are thinking of it being Mexican, but it is actually a people's thing. And it depends on what part of Mexico you're in or what part of Texas you're in or the United States it is. It's gone worldwide. But it's really supposed to be something that is very religious, something that it's very people oriented. Up to that, we celebrate it. I think everybody should celebrate their ancestors.” 

Jiawen Chen
Texas Public Radio
Elly Moran, Middle School Spanish Teacher, Brooke Morales and Williams Sandria, 8th Graders, on display at Woodlawn Academy

Elly Moran: “Most of the work that you see here, the kids made it. All those calaveras, the kids made it.”

“I really have to pass [Dia de los Muertos] on. I’m Jewish, and the reason that I say that is because I identified with those kids who do not know anything about it. I grew up like that, not knowing anything about it. So I saw it as a mystery and I was half-Hispanic but I feel like I was the outsider. So I don’t want my kids to have that feeling. So I start educating them [about it].”

“When you grow up, you start losing track of who you are. And you start imitating others. So to me it was very important that they have their own strong identity and to embrace that more than to look at the negative connotations.”

Brooke Morales: “I have been making altars and setting them up in the park ever since I was 5 with my grandma and my tia.”

Photo of her aunt, top level

“Although I have celebrated many years, this year is a very special year because I get to celebrate the life of my tia who passed last year. I love celebrating the dead’s lives because I am not sad while thinking about them. I’m happy that they lived their life to the fullest. “

Photo of previous band teacher, middle level

Photos, bottom level

“I don’t actually know them. I asked people if they wanted to put someone on there. Just cause they might not do it at home...These two [on the right] are from the secretary. That’s her mom and that’s her grandma. And that one [on the left] is from the custodian.”

Bowl of cornhusks rolled up to look like mini tamales, bottom level in middle

Blanca Rivera, on display at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center’s Dia de los Muertos Exhibit:

Translated from Spanish

Paper chains on archway to symbolize the two sides of life: yellow as Life and purple as Death

“Altars are now recognized by UNESCO as ‘cultural heritage for humanity’, so they don’t just belong to Mexico.”

“On the altars, we’re going to find religion, education, art, mysticism, gastronomy...a little of each thing.”

Photos of Angie Merla, middle level

“This altar is dedicated to my friend Angie Merla, who died 2 months ago.”

“She was very important here at the Esperanza Center because she was a volunteer for many years. She helped here for 20 to 30 years, I believe. But she also helped different organizations [like the Boys and Girls Club and a group that made quilts]...She was in an organization that made dolls without a face that were used as evidence in court for abused children...So she worked very very hard for the community.”

“Angie and I always had a good time. We shared a lot of time with my family and enjoyed many meals together. She was my best right hand woman for working.”

“She was the best at making papel picado. Even in her last days, while she was very sick in the hospital…she made a drawing related to the Aquarius sign [for my daughter’s wedding]. It was two fish giving each other kisses and the bubbles made a heart. She wanted to transfer it to papel picado. I have this last drawing she did.”

12 marigolds to represent each month of the year , middle level

Book, middle level on the left side

“She loved to read. She always went to the library to check out books and movies. She was a very educated woman.”

Rainbow ribbon to commemorate Angie’s support for the LGBTQ community, indistinguishable on the middle level

Items creating a path along the floor

“This is the journey that takes one from Life to Death. The arch is the entrance to Death...Those sandals are for the person on the path who arrives very tired from having walked all the way...The sand cross is to teach you that your body belongs to the earth. The ash cross is to teach you that your body is already ash. The salt is to purify your soul...The difficulties along the path we represent with the snake. At the end we have handwashing - soap and a towel - because you arrive very dirty from the journey. And right at the entrance of the arch we have a mirror, so that you see that you’ve already changed into bones...and you’ll see that you’re truly dead.”

Click here to learn about the many Dia de los Muertos events happening around San Antonio.

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Daniel Ramirez writes about community connections and the local environment. Although he has lived throughout the contiguous U.S., he is a native San Antonian. He can be reached at danielramirez85@gmail.com.
Jia Chen is a freelance journalist and photographer for Texas Public Radio. She began with TPR working as the Bexar County selected Summer Arts Intern in 2021. Her coverage includes arts & culture, technology, politics, and more. She holds a BA in Communication from University of Texas at San Antonio and has lived in San Antonio for over 20 years.