Dia de los Muertos: A Guide to the Day of the Dead

Wondering why you’re seeing dancing, smiling skeletons and marigolds everywhere? That’s because San Antonio not only celebrates Halloween but also pulls out all of the stops for Día de los Muertos. San Antonio is home to the largest Día de los Muertos celebration in the United States. Here’s a guide to the Day of the Dead and how you can celebrate it with your family.

colorful artwork showing a skeleton for day of the deadYou may have seen the brightly decorated Day of the Dead skulls called calaveras, or catrinas, finely dressed skeleton women (catrins are the male skeletons), featured on everything from handbags to kitchen wares in places like H-E-B or Target. And you’ve probably seen the smash Disney children’s film Coco, in which a young boy, Miguel, finds himself in the colorful land of the dead where he learns about his family heritage as his town prepares to celebrate the holiday.

But what is Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos? And why is it celebrated in the U.S.?

Día de los Muertos, often shortened in the U.S. to Día de Muertos, is NOT an extension of Halloween. The two holidays have nothing to do with each other, but because of timing and skeletons, people often think they are related.

a decorated skeleton for day of the deadMany of the Day of the Dead traditions you’ll see in San Antonio come from Mexico, where families gather to pay tribute to their deceased loved ones. Festivities stretch over two days, November 1 and 2, with the former set aside as Day of the Innocents or Day of the Little Angels, a day to honor children who have passed, followed by Day of the Dead, which honors departed adults.

The tradition can be traced to the rituals of the Aztec, Toltec, and Nahua peoples and was later combined with Catholicism brought to Mexico by the Spanish conquistadors. Sadness or mourning of the dead at that time was considered disrespectful. Instead, the holiday becomes a time of love when families remember, reflect on, and celebrate those who have died.

Día de los Muertos is a festive holiday celebrated across Latin America including the Caribbean. It has a growing presence in the United States, especially in California, Arizona, and Texas—all states with larger Latino populations.

a brightly colored skeleton wearing a large hat

In San Antonio, the holiday comes alive with parades and celebrations where people dress up as catrins and catrinas, skeletons in brightly colored, fancy clothes and hats. People also paint elaborate designs on their faces similar to what you see on calaveras, or sugar skulls.

What’s wonderful about celebrating Day of the Dead is that it’s a time to share your memories of someone you’ve lost. It’s a time to highlight what the person loved to do, their favorite foods, and what made that person unique. It brings families together and replaces mourning and sadness with love and joy over a life well-lived. You can teach your children about their grandparents or great-grandparents as well as others on your family tree.

How can you observe this beautiful holiday?

If you somehow haven’t seen Coco, snuggle up and watch it with your kids. It’s a terrific way for them to understand the holiday, and for kids who are scared of skeletons, it can completely change their view. You can also check out Book of Life, the 2014 animated movie that also gives a good overview of Día de los Muertos. Then read more about how one family celebrates the holiday.

You can also build an altar at home with your family to honor a deceased loved one.

a colorful altar celebrating day of the deadBuilding an altar is easy and can be as simple as a table set up with photos of your loved ones and an offering of the foods and drinks they enjoyed. Involve your children in building the altar—it’s a good time to talk with them about beloved family members, and they can help gather items for the altar.

Traditional altars, or ofrendas, are often set up in three tiers representing the land of the dead, the land of the living, and the land of saints, or heaven. They also usually include items that represent the four elements of life: air, earth, fire, and water. You can add candles to represent each loved one; water to quench their thirst after the long journey; pan de muerto, known as the bread of the dead, to feed them; orange or yellow marigold flowers to help them find their way back to the living; and papel picado, which symbolizes the wind.

illustration showing the levels of an altar

Want to make your own altar? Learn more from Marisa. And get some pan de muerto, bread of the dead, for your altar and for everyone to enjoy.

You can also join in celebrations across the city. A few great events to check out include:

  • Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center is celebrating Día de los Muertos with a free dance production “La Vida de los Muertos,” on Nov. 2 and a month-long live altar exhibition, beginning on Nov. 2, celebrating life and honoring the departed. “La Vida de los Muertos” brings to life various characters that explain the tradition and significance of Día de los Muertos through music and dance. The performance features the Guadalupe Dance Company, Dance Academy, and Mariachi Academy. A special altar dedicated to the victims of Uvalde will be exhibited by the Lanier High School Visual Arts department at Galeria Guadalupe, 723 S. Brazos. It will feature one large desk honoring the two teachers and 19 smaller-sized desks for each student.two people dressed as catrinas with a young boy
  • The Pearl community celebration of Día de los Muertos includes multiple altars/ofrendas, childrens’ activities, live music, art installations, and more on Nov. 2 from 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. The festivities are free and open to the public, with activities throughout the property, including face painting, stilt walkers from the dance company at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, drummers and puppets, Los Olvidados & Las Monas, and live music from Mexican-American folk singer and San Antonio native, Tish Hinojosa. Throughout the evening there will also be activities for children to help them celebrate the beloved holiday. El Rincon del Alebrije, presented by the Mexican Consulate, will have wooden guitars and calavera banks for kids to paint and take home. In addition to the programming, Pearl will display several altars as well as art installations. The altars have been created by local artists and institutions to honor a variety of figures, including a community altar for guests to participate in.

Día de los Muertos is not a somber occasion; it’s a time to celebrate, remember, and of course, have fun!

An Army brat who came to Texas for college and ultimately managed to make the Lone Star State her permanent home, Dawn became a mom “AMA” (advanced maternal age), giving her the opportunity to use a stroller vs. a walker as she navigates the world of motherhood. Her growing up way too fast native Texan loves all things Star Wars, Legos, dinosaurs and keeping his parents on their toes. When she’s not busy parenting the original strong-willed child, Dawn runs Tale to Tell Communications, a San Antonio-based PR and marketing agency. An award-winning writer, Dawn also contributes to San Antonio Woman, Rio Magazine and Texas Lifestyle Magazine. She and her family enjoy exploring all that San Antonio has to offer, going on adventures and playing tourist together as much as possible. Favorite Restaurant: Clementine Favorite Landmark: The beauty of the River Walk, especially La Villita Favorite San Antonio Tradition: Celebrating anything and everything with color, music and food