November 26, 2021
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San Antonio’s Día de los Muertos Altars Reveal the Beauty of Life – Texas Public Radio


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

Daniel Ramirez

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 …….


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