To know San Antonio is to understand that this is a town essentially Mexican… and that the way to see the town at its liveliest and gayest is to take part in one of the fiestas of the folk. In these fiestas, with the exception of a few severely religious rites, nobody is merely a spectator: everybody takes part. There are two kinds of fiestas, secular and religious. But often the two are intermingled.Charles Ramsdell, San Antonio: A Historical and Pictorial Guide, 1959
When I first moved to San Antonio in the late 1970s, I not only lived here but had to write about it. Almost immediately, I found myself having to come up with monthly features on the city. Pre-Internet. Charles Ramsdell’s 1959 edition of San Antonio: A Historical and Pictorial Guide became my adopted textbook.
San Antonio was love at first sight. It snagged my affection with my future in-laws’ fresh lime margaritas and a deep dive into a Border Patrol Special – the works – at Karam’s. Its Mexican-ness seduced me, particularly under Ramsdell’s tutelage.
My hometown of Virginia Beach lacked the exotic, as though the ocean hemmed it in from outside influences. When I was in elementary school, the population was only about 8,000. The first taco restaurant – a greasy spoon called Speedy Gonzales – did not even arrive until my senior year in high school. All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days were both holy days of obligation, which meant two extra days of attending mass at Star of the Sea when I would happily have remained at home continuing my sugar high from an absurdly huge trick-or-treat haul. Conducted in Latin, the masses on those days sounded pretty much the same as any other.
But here in San Antonio, Ramsdell showed me a different side of Catholicism. Families gathered together on All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days and headed to the cemetery for outdoor masses and to visit their loved ones.
Ramsdell wrote that many of the dead buried in the ancient San Fernando Cemetery No. 1 were long forgotten, aside from Jose Antonio Navarro (1795-1871); Jose Francisco Ruiz (1783-1840); and Mayor Bryan Callaghan (1852-1912), who is added to the list because he serves as a colorful character in the novel you should be reading as it unfolds online – An Ostrich-Plumed Hat, and, Yes, She Shot Him Dead. The newer San Fernando No. 2 (and now No. 3) is where the action is on the former holy days of obligation.
The people flock by the thousands to the graves of their dead, to decorate them with the flowers of the season: glowing marigolds, all shades of zinnias, tawny and deep-purple and white chrysanthemums, red cockscomb.
They make of the occasion a fiesta, solemn, yet merry….
“Well ahead of the holidays, Haymarket Plaza burgeons with blossoms. The Belgian gardeners, whose fields of flowers have been cultivated south of San Antonio since the 1880s… will have prepared a $100,000 crop that will be harvested for the dead.
“The people stream to the cemetery throughout the daylight hours, early and late. They come in Cadillacs, bearing tributes arranged by the florist. They come in aging jalopies, in ancient carts drawn by spavined mules, all laden with flowers and children and picnic baskets.
“Outside the cemetery walls are the sights and smells of a Mexican fiesta: cabrito (young goat) roasting over charcoal, tamales for sale, coffee steaming in kettles. There are merry-go-round rides for the children.
“The decking of the graves is a pleasant ritual. Children run back and forth to the hydrants, fetching water in painted cans. Grandmother is settled in a comfortable chair, and around her the decoration proceeds, with frequent family consultations. Sometimes a name is spelled out in flowers, sometimes a word: PADRE. Friends pause and admire the artistry.
“When the sun is high, lunch baskets appear and picnic lunches are set out. The decorating done, the children go sleepy. The older people are quiet and contemplative. In years gone by, they would sit all night amid the flickering candles on the graves. But it is no longer permitted…. Toys are left on the graves of children, sometimes a lipstick or high comb on a young girl’s grave. In earlier days food was left for the dead….
“The acres of piled flowers catch the last light as the families gather up their baskets and their babies, and leave their dead in peace.”
I checked Ramsdell out of The Conservation Society Library to resurrect this description. Often, people refer to San Antonio’s Day of the Dead commemorations as new, but they are rooted deeply in the time when Texas was part of Mexico.
Artists have seized upon the most colorful aspects of the celebration and lifted them out of the cemeteries and private homes for all to share. Dia de los Muertos now joins the ranks of San Antonio’s favorite fiestas.
It makes me wish I had a garden full of marigolds to clip and take to our loved ones resting in the Lamar family plots in Mission Cemetery South. Or maybe they’d prefer a margarita or two left out overnight.
Oh, and that’s where you will find the grave of my San Antonio guide, Charles Ramsdell (1909-1973), as well. And the obelisk marking the grave of Otto Koehler, the man shot dead in the aforementioned book.