Inside the Hot Spot event venue on Eighth Street, Garden Citians gathered at the Dia de los Muertos festival, an annual, local celebration of the Mexican holiday that honors, remembers and lifts up the dead.

A chilly week sent the annual Stevens Park festival indoors Saturday, shrinking its scope but not attendees’ and volunteers' enthusiasm. Children and parents circled and leaned over craft tables or met in between them to chat and take photos. As boys and girls of the Sol de Mexico folkloric dance group jumped and spun between tables in the afternoon, onlookers flocked to open spaces, phones out and applause ready, to watch the performances.

Garden City Arts, which organizes the festival, is already planning next year’s celebration with hopes to increase the number of performers, activities and community involvement, said Katy Guthrie, executive director of Garden City Arts. But this year’s intimate festival nonetheless carried the spirit of the holiday.

At craft tables, guests decorated paper skull masks and sugar skull treats, created makeshift candles and weaved vibrant pipe cleaner and tissue paper flower crowns. Kids roamed the area with skeleton-inspired face paint or masks, one knee-high girl looking out at the room from behind a pink skull mask, the nose shaped like an upside-down heart.

Garden City Arts worked with the Finney County Public Library this year to delve into the history of the holiday, Guthrie said. The goal, she said, was to further communicate what Dia de los Muertos is truly about.

“We always try to reiterate that this festival is a celebration of life,” Guthrie said. “The idea behind this festival is that life is cyclical, that the loved ones who pass away are always with us and continue living in another place. I think it’s a really wonderful and healthy way to approach death. Instead of mourning it, we celebrate their lives and why they meant so much to us.”

That message brought back memories of the holiday to several vendors. Eren Jimenez grew up on stories of her grandfather cutting wood and building ofrendas, altars created to memorialize passed loved ones, at her family’s celebrations. A few generations removed, Jimenez said her family no longer creates ofrendas, but still love sharing and passing down stories of those that are gone.

She said Dia de los Muertos preaches death as a temporary separation. And being able to share that celebration with her community is special.

“(It’s) teaching people that there’s sadness in death but at the same time you’re extremely grateful that they’ve been here for you. A lot of Dia De los Muertos is that … belief that the dead wouldn't want us to be sad…” Jimenez said. “Either way, at some point, we’re all going to be reunited.”

Throughout the room, people latched onto the holiday in their own way. Local artist Miguel Rodriguez collided his Hispanic and Garden City roots with prints of his paintings. On several, a woman with a Dia de los Muertos-style flower crown wore both Kansas sunflowers and roses representing Hispanic culture, he said, all popping with color. His connection to the holiday is captured in that color, along with the music and flowers and food that accompany the celebrations of lost loved ones, he said.

To Lisa Neeley, that joyous celebration was a little more fresh. Standing in one corner of the festival was the altar she had made for her friend and mentor Phillip Buntin, a fellow former art teacher at Garden City High School who died last Thanksgiving.

At Days of the Dead past, Neeley had encouraged her students to make small ofrendas for those they missed. This year, on the first Dia de los Muertos since Buntin’s passing, she decided to create one for her friend.

The tall, wooden tri-fold is covered in photos and drawings and paintings illustrating Buntin’s life, surrounded by representations of his love for art and fishing. At the top of the structure is a roof meant to mimic his home. The experience creating the altar was a special one, she said — heartwarming and challenging.

“It brought me to tears a lot, just looking through pictures and thinking about him, how much I miss him and how dear he was to me. It is a lot like Memorial Day. And that’s what I would tell my students. This is a celebration of the person who has passed…” Neeley said. “I was hoping a lot of his friends, colleagues, students, former students would be able to see it and remember him the way they remember ‘Mr. B.’”

Throughout the day, kids approached Neeley’s altar, Guthrie said, wanting to know more about the person it honored or how to make an ofrenda of their own. They had an inherent desire to explore the traditions and activities and encouragement to remember, she said. And Saturday, they had that chance.

Contact Amber Friend at