KC's Dia de Muertos celebration carries on traditions despite pandemic

Posted at 10:29 PM, Oct 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-17 23:39:11-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — On a cool Saturday night, the glow of dozens of candles created a warmth and sense of reverence emanating from the steps of the Kansas City Museum.

The candles -- part of the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead, or Dia de Muertos, -- guided the spirits of loved ones who have passed back to earth. It's a connection between the living and the dead during Dia de Muertos, which starts Oct. 31 and ends Nov. 2.

And though the coronavirus pandemic has changed everything, the meaning of the holiday remains.

The candles are part of the ofrenda, or altar, one of the most important components of the holiday.

"An ofrenda is a way to honor your loved one," said Paul Gutierrez, director of programs and events for the Kansas City Museum. "People sometimes confuse it with Halloween. It’s not supposed to be spooky or scary, but it’s more of a colorful way to remember your loved one."

The Kansas City Museum partnered again with Mattie Rhodes Art Center to create its annual ofrenda. Who they dedicated it to this year hits home.

"It's all to the individuals who have lost their lives due to COVID-19," Gutierrez said. "So it's in memory and honor of those individuals."

And because of the pandemic itself, this year's celebration requires people to reserve time slots to view the ofrenda in order to adhere to social distancing guidelines. Usually, booths would be set up all over the museum yard with face-painting, crafts, music and food.

Big parties have marked this occasion at Mattie Rhodes for more than 20 years.

"No festivals, no big First Friday opening," said Jenny Mendez, cultural arts director at Mattie Rhodes. "But at the same time knowing this is something that we had to do, and especially now."

The display at Mattie Rhodes is even more intimate this year, with just six families creating ofrendas that were presented in a virtual event over the weekend.

Each ofrenda usually is decorated with pictures of the loved one; flowers, like marigolds; papel picado, which is colorful paper with designs cut into it; and the person's favorite things, like trinkets, food and drink. Pan de Muerto is a traditional bread included in the ofrenda.

Copal is an incense usually burned to also help guide the spirits to the ofrenda.

Skulls and skeletons are other important parts of the ofrenda that represent the loved one. Sugar skulls remind others of their mortality, as well as the sweetness of life. People will often elaborately decorate their face like a calavera to pay tribute.

"Every one of our families that was on display have lost their loved ones during this time of this pandemic, so it’s very emotional," Mendez said.

One ofrenda was dedicated to Mary Lopez Bustamante, 96, who died on Aug. 5. Her family wanted her ofrenda by the window at the gallery because she loved to sit in her chair and look out the window at the birds.

Bustamante's grandchildren and great-grandchildren brought in the chair she used to sit in, along with the lamp and side table with her Mountain Dew and her bible on top. They even brought in her back-scratcher, apron and Kleenex, which she always had on-hand.

Mendez said she hopes the community can still understand the meaning even with restrictions.

"They may look at it and can feel the emotion from the families that have created the altars," Mendez said. "So there’s a lot of that in this space, and we want to be able to respect the families and honor them."

Finding happiness while grieving is something the community is trying to balance, but Día de Muertos has captured this concept for thousands of years, dating back to Aztec traditions. In the 16th century, the holiday combined with the Catholic All Saints Day and All Souls Day when Spanish conquistadors invaded Mexico.

The Kansas City Museum's ofrenda display will end Sunday night.

Mattie Rhodes will host more virtual events throughout October, finishing with a virtual blessing Nov. 6.

The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art plans to holding its 10th annual Dia de Muertos celebration virtually this year.

Meanwhile, the Central Avenue Betterment Association will hold virtual and drive-through events Nov. 7.