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For this Kansas City family, lost loved ones are never truly lost on Dia de los Muertos

A women stands next a red El Camino with a elaborate shrine decorating it's bed.
Laura Ziegler
Monica Palacio reflects on the photographs memorializing her loved ones that are part of her family's ofrenda at the 25th Mattie Rhodes Dia de los Muertos Family Festival.

For the Palacio family, Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a chance to reintroduce lost loved ones to a world that never got to meet them. Using one of the holiday’s most well known traditions, the building of the ofrenda, the family creates intimate glimpses into the lives of those who have passed on.

The sounds of Latin music and sizzling grills filled the air on the chilly first Friday in October, as hundreds of Kansas City residents gathered at the Mattie Rhodes Cultural Center in the city’s historic Westside neighborhood. Crowds of multi-generational families fought off the evening’s dropping temperature by exchanging intimate greetings and warm embraces.

It was Mattie Rhodes' 25th annual Dia de los Muertos Family Festival, the first of dozens of celebrations that would happen before and after the holiday, which is traditionally observed on November 1 and 2.

As the crowd wandered through the event, a handful of families stood beside a row of cars which lined 17th Street. In the opened trunks of each car sat intricately decorated shrines, covered in the traditional arrangements of orange marigolds and calaca skulls, known as ofrendas.

The skulls on the shrine are meant to represent the cycle between life and death, while the scent of the marigolds is meant to guide the spirits of the deceased back to the altar.

One of these shrines, nestled in the bed of a ruby red 1973 El Camino, was built by Macio Palacio and his family. He often builds ofrendas for competitions at the festival, but he said that laying out his relatives' photos on top of the shrine's pastel flags, stitched with patterns of butterflies and skulls, always makes him emotional.

The bed of a ruby red 1973 El Camino is decorate with colorful flags, skull prints and photos of people.
Monica Palacio
Macio Palacio won the People's Choice Award for best ofrenda at the Mattie Rhodes Dia de los Muertos Family Festival. It was the first time anyone in the Palacio family had won the award at the event.

“I get goosebumps thinking about 'em all the time. Whenever you love somebody, it always feels that same way,” he said. “Even though they’re not physically here, and we can’t hug them and kiss them … We’re always gonna celebrate them.”

These altars are one of the most recognizable traditions of the Dia de los Muertos. Families build them in their homes, community centers and churches to honor deceased loved ones during the holiday.

Many Latin American countries have celebrations similar to Dia de los Muertos this time of year, but the tradition of building ofrendas comes largely from practices started in Mexico. Many believe Christian/Spaniard settlers began the practice by adapting Aztec customs before the country was fully colonized by Spain.

Macio’s display eventually won the People’s Choice Award for best ofrenda of the night, which came as a welcome surprise to the Palacio family.

“(Macio) literally put in a group text the night before, ‘I think I wanna put my car in the ofrenda contest, but I don't have anything!’” said Yvette Palacio, Macio’s sister-in-law. “So there I am, at 10 o'clock at night, digging our bucket out of Dia de los Muertos stuff.”

Manuel Palacio, Macio’s brother, says this eleventh hour cooperation is not unusual in their family. He believes it’s proof of how strong the family is, especially this time of year.

“We most definitely come together for different events like this and say, ‘Hey, what do you got? Let's make it happen.’” he said. “It always turns out great once we’re there as a family, as a unit.”

‘You get to see their life’

In total, 14 photos were included in the Palacio’s ofrenda that night, but three were featured prominently.

“We have two brothers on the altar, Michael and Mark Palacio,” explained Monica Palacio, Macio’s sister. “We also have our nephew, Dominic Palacio.”

Monica said Michael and Mark were killed by gun violence in 1998 and 2008 respectively. Her young nephew, Dominic, passed away in 2011 at the age of 15 after a battle with bone cancer.

A family stands in front of trailer holding a Dia de los Muertos parade float.
Monica Palacio
Members of the Palacio family don t-shirts to honor Michael, Mark, and Dominic Palacio at the a Dia de los Muertos parade in 2018.

Dominic’s parents, Yvette and Manuel Palacio, supplied many of the decorations for the ofrenda.

According to Yvette, Dominic’s passing is what pushed the couple to get more involved in community events like the festival. The communal mourning and celebration helped them get through the worst days after his death.

She recalled the first time they decided to build an ofrenda at the event to honor Dominic. Even though it had been almost a decade since his passing, she said building the shrine took a great emotional toll on her and her husband.

“The first year we did an ofrenda (at the festival) for my son was five years ago,” she explained. “It brought a lot of emotions out. Some were good, some were bad. It just brings a lot to your mind.”

It's already a difficult time of year for the family since the anniversary of Dominic’s passing falls less than two weeks before Dia de los Muertos.

Dominic’s father, Manuel, said that despite the grief that comes with the anniversary, celebrating his son’s life with his family during the holiday reinforces their belief that their loved ones were more than the physical form they laid to rest.

“It's never easy … when this day comes,” he said. “But I know he's here with me. He's not at the cemetery. People are so fixated on the physical form, you know? But he’s in my mind, my heart, (tattooed) on my arm. He’s always with me … I know he’s good.”

Manuel also said he’s thankful for the unique tradition of the ofrendas. He believes that the shrines allow him to introduce his son to a world that never got to meet him, keeping his memory alive in the mind of Dominic’s nieces and nephews.

“You get to see their life. What'd they do? What'd they like? It shows how they lived,” he explained. “That's what sets us apart from (other cultures). We get to see who that person was.”

An intricately decorated shrine, featuring several basketball jerseys, pieces of food and photos.
Monica Palacio
The Palacio family often builds an ofrenda for Dominic Palacio at community events.

In the personal ofrenda Dominic’s family builds for Dominic every year, the teenager appears as a bright, happy young man. The altar is draped in old basketball jerseys, garnished with small boxes of Chinese takeout. It's covered in photos of Dominic laughing with people who loved him.

A blue T-shirt printed with the words, "I AM DOM" sits on a table beside the shrine, representing the non-profit Yvette and Manuel started in honor of Dominic. The organization offers financial support to families with children battling cancer.

“They’re able to help people who probably wouldn't be helped otherwise,” said Monica Palacio, Dominic’s aunt. “I think that's amazing. They are definitely continuing Dominic's life through the work they've done with that foundation.”

Monica has been helping her family set up their ofrendas, both publicly and privately, for years. She’s seen how they can help a family let go of some of their grief, making space for a celebration of those they’ve lost.

She believes this is what makes so many people, inside and outside of Latino communities, connect with Dia de los Muertos.

“Honoring and remembering each individual who’s on these altars,” she said. “Keeping the things that they did throughout their lifetime on the ofrenda. People outside of our culture just gravitate towards that. It brings them in and helps them to be part of and celebrate us.”

As KCUR’s Community Engagement Producer, I help welcome our audiences into the newsroom, and bring our journalism out into the communities we serve. Many people feel overlooked or misperceived by the media, and KCUR needs to do everything we can to cover and empower the diverse communities that make up the Kansas City metro — especially the ones who don’t know us in the first place. My work takes the form of reporting stories, holding community events, and bringing what I’ve learned back to Up To Date and the rest of KCUR.

What should KCUR be talking about? Who should we be talking to? Let me know. You can email me at zjperez@kcur.org or message me on Twitter at @zach_pepez.

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