Día de Los Muertos, Day of the Dead, is a 2-day holiday on November 1–2 reuniting the living and the dead. The Disney Pixar movie Coco created a newfound fascination with the holiday for me. An annual celebration honoring relatives who have passed on but have a continued presence in our lives speaks to me. Latin American families create ofrendas (offerings) to celebrate their family members who have passed.
Photos of the departed decorate the altars, displayed with bright yellow marigold flowers, plus their favorite food and drinks. The offerings encourage visits from beyond as the departed souls hear our prayers, smell the food, and join in the celebrations. Day of the Dead is a holiday celebrating life and death, where mourning exchanges for celebration.
Día de Los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels) starts at midnight on November 1, when the spirits of all deceased children reunite with their families for 24 hours. An ofrenda is constructed with the departed child’s photograph and favorite snacks and toys to encourage a visit from the child. Often a sugar skull displays the child’s name.
Día de Los Difuntos is celebrated at midnight on the following day, honoring departed adults. Bottles of Atole (a thick beverage of corn, cinnamon, and vanilla), tequila, pan de Muerto (bread), mezcal, and favorite foods decorate the ofrenda as the night fills with laughter, fun memories, games, mariachi bands, dancing, and reminiscing about loved ones.
Dia de Los Muertos is the grand finale and public celebration of all the spirits of the dead. People come together and have parades in the streets, dressed up with Calaveras painted faces (skeletons). Families visit the cemetery to decorate the gravesites with marigolds, sugar skulls, and gifts with the departed’s names on them. The grave is also cleaned and restored.
Calaveras (skulls) are often drawn with a smile to laugh at death itself, taking many forms like sugar skulls that are decorated and placed on the ofrendas. La Catrina, the ancient queen of the Aztec underworld, is depicted as a skeleton wearing a feathered hat, meant to encourage you to live your true self, not trying to be someone you are not, since we all end up as skeletons in the end.
Mexican marigolds (known as “Flor de Muerto,” or “Flowers of the Dead”) are the pathways that guide the spirits to their ofrendas. As they return to feast on their favorite foods, the vibrant colors and the scents of the flowers attract them, representing the beauty and fragility of life.
The Ofrenda offering is the whole celebration, the collection of offerings dedicated to the honored person. A brightly colored oilcloth covers the table with added photos, papel picado (paper flags with skulls and skeletons), personal items, candles, and favorite foods like tamales, tortilla soup, chalupas, sopes, caramel flan, or mole. The archway covered with palm leaves and bouquets of marigolds represents the doorway to the other world.
There are six local civic and cultural groups in major cities in Texas — San Antonio, Austin, Victoria, Corpus Christi, Houston, and Fort Worth — that celebrate Día de Los Muertos, with costumes, dancing, food, wine, parades, decorated altars, and more.
1. San Antonio
The ninth annual Día De Los Muertos in San Antonio is October 23–24, 2021, at downtown Hemisfair, one of National Geographic’s “7 Best Fall Festivals in the U.S.A.” The 2-day event is free and open to the public, with festive celebrations including live music, a large open-air altar exhibition, original artwork, live poetry, dance, drums, giant puppet procession, or mojigangas, and workshops.
Learn how to make and decorate sugar skulls, plus where to order the skull molds, here. The recipe calls for fine granulated sugar, meringue powder, and powdered icing sugar.
Interesting fact: Day of the Dead is not Mexican Halloween. The two holidays are separate. Most people of Latin America do not decorate their houses with spiders and bats or wear scary costumes.
Pro Tip: Stay at Inn on the River Walk, three early 1900 homes featuring 13 luxury guest suites on the River Walk at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac, with free breakfast, parking, and Wi-Fi. See my article about San Antonio hotels and restaurants on the River Walk here.
Hosted at Austin’s Mexic-Arte Museum annually, the Día de Los Muertos festival is known as Viva La Vida Fest, the longest Day of the Dead festival in the city, this year on October 30, 2021. The Grand Procession, a parade showing very elaborate Día de Los Muertos costumes, starts off the celebration. Live music, local art, and retail vendors are the main attractions. Browse through the Education Pavilion to view art demos, interactive displays, plus indulge in traditional Mexican cuisines like tamales and mole. Watch for news about the annual Catrina Gala en Familia, serving the museum’s operations and underserved schools.
Interesting Fact: It is not a sad time, but a time of celebration, viewing death as a part of life. You will see brightly colored smiling skulls and skeletons as a friendly nod to death. This view of death began during the 1-month Aztec festival where the dead were celebrated people paying homage to Mictlancihuatl, the lady of death, who protected their departed loved ones and helped them in the afterlife.
Pro Tip: Stay nearby at The Driskill, a historic Texas landmark in the heart of downtown Austin. With 189 luxury guestrooms and 14 spacious suites, three exquisite food and beverage venues, and unmatched service, The Driskill is a stay you won’t forget.
October 1–November 1, 2021, Victoria will celebrate Día de Los Muertos with community, tradition, and culture. Latin Americans have celebrated the holiday since 1800 B.C. You won’t see pictures or images of dead people, ghosts, witches, or the devil. The celebration is a Catholic Christian ritual intermixed with folk culture, reflecting on our lives, heritage, ancestors, and the purpose of our existence.
Visit #myofrendaVTX for a virtual slideshow of personal home ofrendas created by local Victorians throughout the length of the festival. On October 29, at the Victoria Art League, view a remembrance exhibit displaying local art from artists that have passed on. On Saturday, October 30, view an exhibition displaying photography from locals based on the theme of Celebrating Life and Death.
Enjoy a unique Día de Los Muertos Food Tour at mapped restaurants or take a self-guided walk at downtown Victoria businesses viewing special dedications. See the altar contest and celebration, October 30 at De Leon Plaza from 2:00 p.m.–8:00 p.m.
Pro Tip: See my article about Victoria, things to do, places to eat, and where to stay.
4. Corpus Christi
Corpus Christi’s 2021 Día De Los Muertos will continue as planned inside K Space Gallery and throughout downtown Corpus Christi, replacing the street festival this year. Attend the Walk of Remembrance Ofrenda Display at the Ritz Theater, the downtown Altar Tour, Tienditas de Día de Los Muertos with selected vendors, fine art exhibits, photography exhibitions, and virtual programming on social media.
Interesting Fact: Day of the Dead is a widely celebrated holiday all over the world. Many commemorate All Souls Day during the same time as Day of the Dead. The celebration is unique in its traditions, the ofrenda, the Calaveras, the style influenced by La Catrina, and the festivals in the streets.
Pro Tip: Stay at the Omni Corpus Christi Hotel, in the lively downtown Marina District, overlooking Corpus Christi Bay. The Republic of Texas Bar & Grill offers fresh seafood and steaks with a picturesque view.
Houston’s celebration, October 30–31, 2021, is sponsored by MECA, Multicultural Education and Counseling Through the Arts, where you can enjoy Mexican and Latin American altar and retablo exhibitions, community workshops, a variety of foods, and a fun run. The art-filled campus at the nationally recognized Historic Dow School in the heart of Houston’s Old Sixth Ward will host the event in its 21st year.
Pro Tip: Hyatt Regency Houston, downtown, is near the MECA. Indulge in a mouthwatering steak at the only Shula’s Steakhouse in Texas. Grab a quick breakfast at Einstein Bros. Bagels or savor a margarita in the chic lobby bar.
6. Fort Worth
October 30, 2021, join the Botanical Research Institute of Texas for the Day of the Dead Celebration at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, with live bands, drinks, and food trucks. Celebrate this long-standing Mexican tradition and dress in your favorite Day of the Dead costume.
Pro Tip: The Fort Worth Kimpton Harper Hotel is now open, a landmark boutique hotel blending the city’s unique history with modern style. Take the elevator to the 24th-floor lobby with city views, plus a lively bar scene with craft cocktails and small bites. Savor contemporary Italian cuisine at Modo, on the ground floor.
Our dead are never dead until we have forgotten them, as Miguel in the movie Coco reminds us.
Other Texas experiences worth sampling: