Area Foundation Helps Cultural Arts Nonprofits Keep Día De Los Muertos Tradition Alive

By Kiko Martinez

SAN ANTONIO — With a Latino population of 64 percent, San Antonio has always been a city where a tradition like Día de los Muertos(Day of the Dead) is one that will always hold a special place in the heart of our community, which has deep and long-lasting ties to the celebration’s birthplace – Mexico.

Each year, thousands of locals make it a point to observe Nov. 1-2 as days when friends and families come together to celebrate the lives of loved ones lost over the years. Through the building of homemade ofrendas (altars), decorating homes with calaveras (skulls) and marigold flowers and participating in other traditions, Día de los Muertos is a cultural beacon that has been passed on for generations.

Many community organizations have also incorporated Día de los Muertos into their annual festivities, including various cultural arts nonprofits funded by the Area Foundation. Nonprofits such as Centro Cultural Aztlan and Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, which have held community-based events for years. In fact, Centro was the first organization in San Antonio to celebrate the centuries-old tradition.

“We are proud to support nonprofits like Centro Cultural Aztlán and the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center who are preserving celebrations like Dia de los Muertos,” said Stephanie LaFroscia, the Area Foundation’s Senior Program Officer for Cultural Vibrancy. ‘Their work allows communities to honor tradition and celebrate contemporary interpretations that keeps cultural heritage alive.

This year, Centro, which provides a platform for local visual and performing artists, poets, writers and musicians to share their work, will hold its 44th annual Día de los Muertos exhibition, Altares y Ofrendas. The in-person opening reception for the exhibit takes place 6-9 p.m. on Nov. 2, running through Nov. 5.

As part of Centro’s “Cultural Expressions Series,” Altares y Ofrendas “illustrates the artistic, cultural, and religious facets of [a] popular pre-Columbian Mexican tradition where death is seen as a natural part of life.” 

Malena González-Cid, Centro’s Executive Director, is excited about returning to in-person events after more than a year and a half of virtual programming due to the pandemic. She said she was surprised at the amount of people who attended the U.S. Postal Service’s unveiling of a new Day of the Dead stamp on Oct. 1, the first in-person event Centro hosted since last year.

“We’re social beings, so we need the face-to-face interaction,” González-Cid said. “It’s important for us because that’s the way we connect to the community that we serve. Part of our mission is to foster community pride and engagement. It’s also important for us to maintain our cultural heritage. Centro has done this over the years by producing events like Día de los Muertos and others. It’s part of our legacy.”

González-Cid added that she is thankful that the San Antonio Area Foundation has made a “special commitment over the years” to support “minority-specific organizations” like Centro.

“The Area Foundation knows the impact that we have on the community, particularly the Latino population, which is growing by leaps and bounds,” she said. “We’re the ones that expose them to traditional celebrations for families and give them something they can look forward to. It becomes a cultural experience for them.”

Cultural experiences are also what Esperanza Peace and Justice Center hopes to continue delivering to San Antonio residents. For nearly a quarter-century, Esperanza has advocated for women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, the working class and those living in poverty. It’s observance of Día de los Muertos continues its mission in serving as a “testament to the healing power” of Latino culture.

Esperanza’s Día de los Muertos in-person celebration starts Nov. 1 at 10 a.m. and continues through Nov. 8. It will feature a series of community altars, neighborhood marigold gardens, a photo exhibition and a marketplace. A virtual component of the celebration will also take place each evening at 7 p.m. with music, poetry, calavera readings and tutorials on building altars. Mariachi Esparza will also perform Nov. 1-2 at 6 p.m.

“Our Día de Muertos celebration is really grounded in the community being creative,” said Esperanza Executive Director Graciela Sanchez. “We’ve learned these traditions from our own grandparents and great-grandparents. We want them to be able to tell the stories of their families. Our celebration is something very special.”

The Area Foundation takes great pride in our support for San Antonio’s cultural arts community. In fact, the organization made sure to include emergency funding for arts and culture nonprofits as part of the COVID-19 Response Fund in 2020. That’s because Cultural Vibrancy it’s one of our four principal grantmaking impact areas – click here to find out more.

Francisco “Kiko” Martinez is a San Antonio-based freelance writer and part of the San Antonio Area Foundation Marketing & Communication Department’s new Storytelling Ambassador contributor network.