Mattie Rhodes Center’s Westside Art Gallery unveiled this year’s Day of the Dead altars with a street fair on Friday, October 1. The altars will be available for viewing at 915 West 17th St. from Wednesday through Friday, noon to 5 p.m., and Saturdays to be announced through November 5.
The Day of the Dead, or “el Dia de los Muertos” in Spanish, is a celebration of life and death. The holiday originates in Mexico, though it is celebrated in many other countries in different forms. The Day of the Dead embodies themes from both All Saints and All Souls Day, Catholic holidays, and those of the Aztecs and the Mayans. The culmination of these many beliefs focus on families reflecting upon those who have passed and rejoicing in the happiness they once shared, according to the Mattie Rhodes website. The holiday is celebrated each year from October 31 through November 2.
“So this is the first time that we’ve done a festival on the first Friday of October, we usually just have hundreds of people crowded in our space and so we thought we might as well have a street festival, a good reason to have a great party and really kind of spread people out outside and then have a limited number able to come in and see the ofrendas, which are the altars that community members and families have made for loved ones that they have lost this year,” said Jenny Mendez, Cultural Arts Director at Mattie Rhodes Center.
The gallery space was surrounded by street vendors, food trucks, music, a car show, and buzzing with energy on Friday evening. Bringing together Hispanic Heritage Month, which is observed from September 15 through October 15, and the Day of the Dead celebrations
“It’s been such a great reason to be back and be able to do this for people in our community,” Mendez said. “This is our 23rd year, so we’re really excited about being able to be open again to the public and having something like this because it really does mean a lot to a lot of people to be able to honor their loved ones, especially so many that we lost during this COVID pandemic.”
Families and friends who reserved a space spent hours building altars for their loved ones, incorporating personal touches, photographs and art.
“The next event will be November the 5th, and that will also include the calaca parade, which is really great,” Mendez said. “It should be even bigger and better for November the 5th, but this is great tonight.”
In addition to the altars, local artists are exhibiting their work. The featured artist this year is Laedan “DINKC” Galicia. He created the artwork that appears on the event’s marketing materials and t-shirts.
“I used to come here when I was little,” Galicia said of Mattie Rhodes. “I moved away for seven years in 2014. I was gone, I was traveling to New York and Denver and came back in January, and then they hit me up just recently, last month.”
Galicia said the planning moved quickly once they figured out a way to host the event safely, but it happened organically. He had about one month to create the design, build his window display and altar, and figure out his main piece to show.
“They were just like, ‘We would love for you to be a featured artist, we love your work, we love that you’re back in the city and would love to promote it, like sponsor you and everything,’ so I came in and had a meeting literally like early last month, August… I was like, let’s do it,” Galicia said.
Fortunately, Galicia works well under pressure and said he’s used to creating and curating shows that fast.
“I’m just kind of really excited to have my opportunity to be part of the legacy that is Mattie Rhodes,” Galicia said. “I wanted to reintroduce myself to Kansas City after leaving and I’ve definitely developed my style throughout the years and it was just a conglomerate of all my different illustrations and designs that I’ve done before and just kind of put everything together in one to be like, ‘This is me now, coming back.’”
Galicia loved the street fair, reminiscing on his childhood spent in the Westside at Mattie Rhodes.
“I remember coming here as a kid again, just seeing the festivities, the culture, the traditions and everybody just being about it and supporting the community and the art,” Galicia said. “I think it is absolutely amazing. For me to be part of it and be able to get this type of attention is definitely a blessing for sure.”
Hecho KC’s Luis Garcia displayed his signature hearts and spoke with pride of the upcoming opening of the new Mattie Rhodes Center, which will be at 1701 Jarboe St., and will provide a more elevated space for artists to display their work and be home to expanded programming for all ages.
“I’ve been connected to Mattie Rhodes since 2000,” Garcia said. “My uncle was associated with Mattie Rhodes from the Westside so it’s pretty much like lineage. Also, I’ve been on the capital campaign for the new gallery, and then I’ve been in every show for Day the Dead since 2000.”
The current gallery is somewhat of a raw space in terms of the exposed brick and the wood floors. Garcia noted the way that it moves with visitors when they walk, and how they have to explore the environment along a certain path. He thinks the new gallery space will be a completely different experience.
For him, Mattie Rhodes is like family and he definitely couldn’t miss this year’s festivities.
“It’s vibrating, it’s electric just because I know everyone’s out here to hang out, and also support all the artists and vendors that are here, but people have been waiting for this to happen, like this has always been a traditional thing. Last year, of course, it was minimal, but I think it’s just about the community and the people that are around this neighborhood.”
Garcia said the historically Hispanic neighborhood has shifted over the years, becoming more eclectic and diverse.
“I think there’s a lot of other people that are wanting to come out and understand what Mattie Rhodes has been doing for such a long time, I think it’s like 25 years or something like that, for the Day of the Day celebration,” Garcia said.
Lupita Vargas, a vendor on Friday night selling vintage and new Hispanic-inspired clothing, is from Jalisco, Mexico.
“I really love my culture and I love to promote and share all the richness of the clothing and all the culture that is behind it,” – said. “I just love these events.”
Some of the clothes she and her daughter sell are vintage, straight from Guatemala, but the new clothes are directly from artisans in -, Oaxaca, Puebla and Veracruz.
Ollama, one of the most recent additions to the Kansas City coffee scene, opened at the beginning of 2021 at 523 Southwest Boulevard.
“We’re a Latin American coffee shop located in the Crossroads, Westside and our house specialty is café de olla,” co-owner Leslie Reyes said. “All of our specialty drinks, too, they’re very like traditional ingredients to all of Latin America. We’re not a typical latte, cappuccino type of place but our stuff is really tasty.”
Café de olla is a traditional coffee that is slowly brewed with canela, piloncillo and spices, topped with salted sweet foam. Reyes said the whole reason why they started Ollama was because their culture is very important to them and they definitely felt like there needed to be something more like it in Kansas City.
“We figured if we could provide that with a coffee shop, then why not?” said Reyes, who owns the shop with her husband.
Mattie Rhodes Visual Art Coordinator Kiki Serna manned the door to the exhibits, creating social distance and counting attendees.
“The CEO [John Fierro] says this all the time, I truly believe it, that it’s the window to Mattie Rhodes as a whole,” Serna said. “A lot of people come here when they’re young, like we have students from Primitivo Garcia, they’re very itty bitty, and they come here to do aftercare and make art, basically.”
She said after all these years, it’s become a generational thing. Students once taught at Mattie Rhodes are now sending their children there for programs.
“A lot of people really fall in love with the art center and the gallery through here,” Serna said. “We offer programming with kiddos, we offer programming for youth, teens, adults, we do workshops.”
But what they’re known for the most is Dia de los Muertos. Serna said the way Mattie Rhodes approaches it has a lot to do with helping the Latinx community connect with their roots, even for those who have never had an ofrenda at home before.
“It’s the perfect time for them to learn how to do that, and then there’s elements, of course, of art, creativity, and then even mental health, how to cope, how to heal, how to celebrate the life of those who passed,” Serna said. “I think it’s a really great way to carry out the mission of Mattie Rhodes as a whole. I think that’s the greatest tool within art is being able to understand the power of what art is and Mattie Rhodes here in the gallery and the art center really focuses on centering and finding ways, outlets or outreach, through the arts and so it comes very naturally with the people that come here and the participants, they always come back.”
Serna said Mendez has traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico, bringing back the most authentic version of the holiday and carrying those elements through other things they do, such as the children’s exhibit, working with community, working with youth and teaching them about arts, teaching them that arts is an option, all the way to the Mujer (woman) Exhibit, which is all about empowering women.
Bridging Hispanic Heritage Month and the Day of the Dead further helps Latinx people in Kansas City connect to their culture, Serna said. Born in Mexico City, Mexico, she grew up in Blue Springs, Mo., but didn’t feel connected to her culture.
“That was one of the things I was searching for is my heritage, like, where can I connect? Where can I feel at home? Where can I feel comfortable?” Serna said of Mattie Rhodes. “I think that the connection between that is so important because it helps people either rediscover their culture or recreate it in a way. Especially with the Chicano movement, which the Westside is so proud to have had that, a lot of artists, that’s something that comes naturally to them and to be able to find a space that historically connects to it but also to hold it now and use the platform for them to show work, it’s natural.”
Even for people who aren’t Latinx, they come to Mattie Rhodes to have their questions answered, to celebrate the creativity and culture, and to gain an understanding of its history. Latinx culture and the Westside go hand-in-hand, Serna said.
“No matter what background we’re from, we understand loss, we understand culture,” Serna said. “Historically, there are a lot of movements that have been born from loss and being able to create something new, something amazing out of it, to become empowered or to gain that power back in that space.”
Miss Maggie, the ceramics teacher, is leading a miniature altar workshop on October 13 and 27 from 6 to 8 p.m. for $30 per person. Sign-up is at mattierhodes.org.
“We had a lot of requests this year for people to have altars, a lot of them dealing with COVID, people that have passed that we know from the neighborhood or from the Northeast even, and they weren’t able to have one because our space is small,” Serna said. “They can come here, they can make a little altar in ceramics and then take it home with them. It’s a great alternative.”
The month of festivities will conclude on November 5 with the calaca (skeleton) parade and closing reception from 6 to 10 p.m.