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Arts & Life

In Kansas City, Kansas, The Day Of The Dead Celebration Grows More Alive Every Year

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Edgar Galicia
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Central Avenue Betterment Association
Volunteers pose after learning how to paint calaveras for the Day of the Dead parade in Kansas City, Kansas.

A dozen kids in costumes were running around the Bethany Community Center in Kansas City, Kansas, on a recent Thursday night, while a few adults tried to get them to spread out across the room.

The Zombie Zumba event was supposed to be outside and draw about 50 people. But the weather, which had been perfect days before, turned cold and rainy, forcing the event inside.

That was slightly disappointing for the handful of volunteers who were hoping to hand out fliers at this year’s Day of the Dead parade. The celebration, which takes place Saturday, is in its second year. Organizers rely on volunteers and word-of-mouth, since it doesn’t have a big marketing budget.

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Credit Lisa Rodriguez / KCUR 89.3
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KCUR 89.3
Megan Painter, dressed as La Catrina, participates in Zombie Zumba at Bethany Community Center in Kansas City, Kansas. She was there to help promote the annual Day of the Dead parade.

This weekend, Mexican communities all over the world will celebrate Día de los Muertos. As popular culture continues to embrace the holiday, volunteers in Kansas City, Kansas, hope to bring the city together with a parade.

An intimate celebration goes mainstream

Families usually celebrate Día de Los Muertos by creating altars for loved ones who have passed, filling them with mementos and guilty pleasures from when they were living.

The idea for Mexico City’s very first Day of the Dead parade actually came from a 2015 James Bond Movie.

In the opening scene of "Spectre," actor Daniel Craig weaves through a massive Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City in pursuit of his target.

Mexican officials liked the idea so much, they put on their own parade in 2016.

“And it really created an impact that today that today several places have taken this idea of celebrating,” says Edgar Galicia, head of the Central Avenue Betterment Association, or CABA.

Galicia took the idea to Kansas City, Kansas, and launched the first Día de los Muertos parade down Central Avenue last year.

It was such a success, participation has more than doubled.

And this year’s celebration got another boost from the big screen with the late 2017 release of Disney’s "Coco."

A community-wide effort

Daniela Gonzalez is leading a group of 20 volunteers to paint people’s faces like calaveras — the colorful, decorated skulls that are typical in Day of the Dead celebrations.

She says last year, she was surprised that so many non-Mexican people attended and wanted to learn about the holiday.

“Some people would even ask us about it while I was painting faces, like, ‘Can you explain why we paint the faces?’” Gonzalez says.

The answer to that, for Gonzalez, is about creating a physical connection with loved ones who have already passed away.

“You have to accept that death is kind of a part of your life. So it's just showing your acceptance of it,” she says. 

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Credit Lisa Rodriguez / KCUR 89.3
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KCUR 89.3
Jessica Riviera practices the makeup for one of the Catrinas that will walk along the parade route on Saturday.

Learning more about the tradition is partly what made Nathalie Martinez-Vowels get involved this year. She is one of about a dozen Catrinas who will walk along the parade route. La Catrina is the tall, lady skeleton in a big hat decked out in marigolds and rich colors.

Martinez-Vowels says even though she’s from Colombia, where they don’t celebrate Día de los Muertos, being one of the Catrinas makes her feel like part of the tradition.

“And by being part, you can also see more beyond the dress up and the 'sugar skulls,'" Martinez-Vowels says, referring to classic children's activity of decorating candy skulls.

Fantastical floats

Over in an auto shop near the Kansas River in the Argentine neighborhood, Sergio Nolasco unloads a giant alebrije from a flatbed truck.

Alebrijes are the brightly colored, fantastical creatures typical in Mexican folk art. Nolasco’s has the head of a panther crossed with a dragon, the body of a caterpillar and wings. It’s taken three months to make.

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Credit Lisa Rodriguez / KCUR 89.3
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KCUR 89.3
Photographer Sergio Nolasco created a giant alebrije, a colorful, fantastical creature, for this year's parade.

Nolasco, a photographer by trade, moved to the United States from Mexico City about 11 years ago. In January, he started Raíces Galeria, a community gallery that features Hispanic artists.

When Galicia asked him to get involved in the parade, he immediately thought of making an alebrije, which he remembers learning about as a child in Mexico.

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Credit Lisa Rodriguez / KCUR 89.3
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KCUR 89.3
Like the alebrijes in the movie Coco, Nolasco created a creature that glows in the dark.

“I don’t see anything the same in KC,” Nolasco says. 

Megan Painter, another Catrina this year, says the celebration is accessible for everyone, not just Mexicans.

“It doesn't matter who you are, you're going to line up for candy and you're going to see things that you have not seen before. And, you know, KCK doesn't have a majority, so it's a beautiful mix of minority and I think that's probably why we have so many celebrations.”

A parade for every culture

Kansas City, Kansas, has a lot of parades. There’s a Silver City parade, a Central Avenue Parade, Polski Day, Cinco de Mayo and Turner Days, to name a few. 

Galicia says these celebrations show the rest of the metro area the vibrant community that lives here, because Kansas City, Kansas, hasn’t always been a destination.

The area, particularly along Central Avenue, has suffered from decades of disinvestment. A wave of immigrants, mostly from Mexico and Central America, moved in in the early 2000s and helped revitalize the corridor.

“Wyandotte County, Kansas City, Kansas, in specific has gone through an evolution. Yes, we had hard times. Yes, we had a lot of crime. Yes, we had challenges with government and politics,” Galicia says.  

He believes that just having people line Central Avenue can begin to change that perspective.

“But the craziest part of it is that we, ourselves, hold a deeper negative opinion of ourselves then the rest of the people. So we need to reverse that and these types of events help us do that,” Galicia says.

Galicia is especially proud of this celebration because, unlike other Dia de los Muertos celebrations across the metro that are well-funded and sponsored by Kansas City institutions, this one is the product of a community volunteering its time and energy.

Día de los Muertos festivites begin at 3 p.m. along Central Avenue at 14th Street in Kansas City, Kansas. The parade starts at 7th Street at 6 p.m., followed by music and activities at the end of the parade route. 

Lisa Rodriguez is a reporter and the afternoon newscaster for KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter @larodrig.

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