In a weekend packed with last-minute trunk-or-treats and Halloween parties, downtown’s Dia de los Muertos Festival turned the weekend, for many people, toward remembrance, tradition and a taste of home.
From its inception, Garden City Arts’ Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, event was meant to be a celebration of culture in a very diverse town, said Katy Guthrie, executive director of Garden City Arts. Now entering its seventh year with over 600 attendees, the Stevens Park festival acted as both teaching tool and traditional observance, with the goal of bringing the community that much closer together.
All humans understand and are connected through death, and the bad and the beautiful that it leaves in its wake, Guthrie said, and Dia de los Muertos made that connection vivid and vibrant.
"I think one of the ways that we are enriching lives would be to bring cultural events where people can learn about something new or maybe celebrate something that their family has celebrated for a long time," Guthrie said.
Dia de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday spanning Oct. 31-Nov. 2, during which families honor, remember and pray for family or friends that have passed on with ofrendas, altars with the deceased’s photos, flowers and favorite food, or by gathering at cemeteries.
In Garden City, the occasion goes community-wide.
The Garden City Community College art club sold hand-painted t-shirts inspired by Day of the Dead and Garden City High School art club painted kids’ faces to look like skulls. The GCHS Folklorico Dance Club sold tacos to raise money for dresses and Holcomb High School’s Hispanic American Leadership Organization guided the free-for-all sugar skull decoration station, where children used icing to bring the candy to life.
Folkloric dancers from grade school on up danced in front of the bandshell, many donning skeleton-inspired facepaint or masks. Large, technicolor Frida Kahlo-inspired flower crowns peppered the crowds. The event’s innate creativity made it automatically participative, Guthrie said.
The event marked the first Dia de los Muertos since the release of Pixar’s “Coco,” an animated film surrounding the holiday about a Mexican boy who learns to better appreciate his family and ancestors and the need to remember them. Echoes of the movie reverberated throughout the afternoon. A little boy dressed as Miguel, the film’s main character, won a vote-by-applause costume contest in a landslide. One of the movie's songs, “Un Poco Loco,” boomed from the loudspeakers.
Guthrie said the impact of mainstream movies like “Coco” or 2014’s “Book of Life” that feature Dia de los Muertos was amazing and helped people who may not celebrate the holiday better understand or identify it. Through the Stevens Park celebration, Garden City Arts reiterated that awareness, she said. And in many ways, brought it to life.
"I love Garden City because we are so diverse and we are somewhat of a melting pot, but I think any time you can have an event that encourages more of the melting pot, the better. Any time you can do that, I think that's a positive in my book," Guthrie said.
The organization has changed the way it incorporates ofrendas at the event over the years, responding to community feedback, Guthrie said. In past years, attendees have been invited to create their own ofrendas at the park. This year, they could write memories or messages about loved ones on colorful pieces of paper and clip them to the stage at the front of the park.
It was one of the ways the event brought Mexican culture to the forefront, said GCHS student Ivan Montelongo, who ran the ofrenda station.
Montelongo, Andrea Munoz of GCHS Folklorico and Bellai Ivarra of HHS HALO said their families celebrated Dia de los Muertos in different ways — with photos, prayer or family trips to Mexico. Alondra Jurado, 2017 Miss Garden City Fiesta, said she hopes the Garden City celebration continues to grow.
"We don't have a lot of what we have in Mexico, and this is a way to get closer to your culture when you're away from your country," Jurado said.
In some ways, the festival was a conduit of tradition and familial connection that felt lightyears away. Josie Saenz and her husband, Antonio, traveled to the festival from Scott City with their young daughter in an attempt to impart the traditions their parents taught them in Mexico. In the near future, Saenz said she hopes to bring a similar celebration to Scott City.
“We feel like this is an event where we can come and remember our memories from Mexico ... We miss it. We (come) to this event so we can feel like we're back home," Saenz said.
The history and meaning behind the festival hasn’t hit her daughter yet, Saenz said — she’s still too little. But, eventually she’ll learn, and the festival can help establish that foundation.
“We show this to our kids so they will always remember those traditions and where we all come from. I want to make sure they don't forget it,” she said.
Contact Amber Friend at firstname.lastname@example.org.