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Grappling with Grief During Día de los Muertos Families Honor Loved Ones Lost to Violence, Crime

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Above image credit: Mother and daughter, Jazmin Marmolejo and Erika Gaitan carried a supply of decorations to a site in Northeast Kansas City this week, items that they used to create a tribute to the memory of Victor Marmolejo, their son and brother. (Mary Sanchez | Flatland)
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7 minute read

Kneeling in the grass, Jazmin Marmolejo grasps the wooden mallet and gently taps at the cross. 

Her son’s name is written in black paint across the top slat. 

She is securing a strip of serape, delicately draping it around the string of colorful felt calaveras or skulls, taking care not to cover the bold lettering VICTOR MARMOLEJO. 

She immigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico. Her son was born in the United States. 

He also died here at 16, in their Northeast Kansas City home. 

After his death in July 2021, the family discovered that Victor had begun taking the depressant Percocet.  

At least one pill had been cut with fentanyl. Victor overdosed.  

“I used to tell people that he died in his sleep,” his mother said. “My life fell apart.”   

Slowly, after about 18 months had passed, she was able to discuss the cause of her son’s death. 

Then, she began reaching out to other Spanish-speaking mothers who’d lost children, especially to violence.  

She now operates what is believed to be the only Spanish-language grief counseling group in the area, devoted to mothers who have lost a child to violence. Often, the group links with a licensed therapist in Mexico for the sessions.  

Some of the murdered children will be remembered in the coming days, memorialized by this new tradition.  

“To talk about it is better,” Marmolejo said. “People need to know what their children are doing. But before, just to see his picture, I would completely breakdown.”   

Victor’s is just one cross.  

Nearly a dozen crosses dot a sloping rise of land along Gladstone Boulevard in the Northeast neighborhood, near Belmont Avenue.  

A picture of her son Victor as an angel is held by Jazmin Marmolejo, part of the decorations she brought to leave at a cross in his memory.
A picture of her son Victor as an angel is held by Jazmin Marmolejo, part of the decorations she brought to leave at a cross in his memory. (Mary Sanchez | Flatland)

Each is for a community member who died by gun violence, drug use or domestic violence.  

It’s a new initiative this year by Mattie Rhodes Center, which has long been a part of the colorful festivities of Día de los Muertos, which centers on the belief that the spirits of the departed are given divine permission to visit with relatives at this time each fall.  

The days are based on ancient beliefs of the Aztecs, who ruled Mexico long before the Spanish invaded.  

We come only to sleep, only to dream   
It is not true; it is not true that we come to live on this earth   
We become as spring weeds, we grow green and open the petals of our hearts   
Our body is plant in flower, it gives flowers and it dies away   
I, Nezahualcóyotl, ask: Does one really live with roots on this earth? 
Not always on this earth, only a little while here   
Even jade breaks, just as gold breaks   
Even the quetzal plumes fall apart   
Not always on this earth, only a little while here   

Nezahualcóyotl, the poet-king who ruled Texcoco (pre-Mexico) in the 13th century. 

Later, Aztec beliefs blended with the Catholicism of the conquistadors and the practices of All Souls Day.  

Marmolejo was the first mother to arrive this week. Along with her daughter, 15-year-old Erika Gaitan. They carted two plastic tubs of decorations, photos and tissue marigolds, strings of colorful skeletons and a photo of her son, angel wings attached.  

The hope is that decorating the crosses like families do in Mexico’s cemeteries can anchor the Latino community in this ancient tradition. In doing so, they hope to address the traumatizing effect of grief in the community by incorporating the healthy ways that Mexican culture views life and death.  

This is the first year for the crosses in a Northeast location.  

It is the third year the crosses, about 40, will be displayed at Mattie Rhodes’ other location, on the Westside. Families will decorate those crosses on Friday evening.  

“It’s still in the very infancy stages,” said John Fierro, president and CEO of Mattie Rhodes, a counseling and arts center. “But we have found that for those small number of families that do come forward, they want the fellowship of other families who experienced what they’ve experienced.”   

The annual gatherings are expected to grow.  

“To me it is a beautiful sentiment of how we remember your loved one,” said Monique Alvarado-Arellano, community resource coordinator with Mattie Rhodes. “Some see their loved one’s name and then they come back and then they decorate.”   

Alvarado’s position is funded through a grant through COMBAT, a 30-year-old sales tax in Jackson County that funds anti-crime efforts.  

Monique Alvarado-Arellano, a community resource coordinator with Mattie Rhodes, met with families coming to decorate crosses in a display to honor homicide victims and others who died by violence.
Monique Alvarado-Arellano, a community resource coordinator with Mattie Rhodes, met with families coming to decorate crosses in a display to honor homicide victims and others who died by violence. (Mary Sanchez | Flatland)

Earlier this year, Mattie Rhodes began working with a three-year grant through the Department of Justice to fund three street outreach workers.  

They’re organized under Aim4Peace and the Kansas City Health Department. The workers connect with families after homicides occur in the community, heading off retaliatory violence and offering social and emotional support services and other help.  

“Not many of us have had the experience of having a family member murdered, much less a child, to know how to console one another,” Fierro said. “It’s definitely a much-needed support system to be offered to the Hispanic community.”   

For those families, the building of an altar, or decorating a cross annually may become part of their healing.  

Life is a Dream State  

In Mexico, death is not to be feared, not with images of a grim reaper. 

Rather, there is more acceptance of death as a natural consequence of living.  

Special meals are prepared, often the favorites of the deceased person. Altars or ofrendas, are constructed, some quite elaborate.  

Día de los Muertos is not a Mexican version of Halloween. Think of it more as a festive, yet reverent Memorial Day. 

Marigolds are thought to be little suns, helping to guide spirits back. Hummingbirds and monarch butterflies are often used in the displays, with families creating altars or ofrendas to memorialize loved ones who have passed.  

The Aztecs believed that warriors who died honorably later transformed into hummingbirds.   

It’s a series of nights that fall at the end of October and the beginning of November. Each day is to honor a different group — people who died by accident, children, adults and the unbaptized.  

In the Kansas City area, most of the events will conclude this weekend.  

Mattie Rhodes will conclude a month of art and ofrenda (altars) exhibits on Friday, ending with a parade of calacas (skeletons).  

Guadalupe Centers, at the Westside location, drew a huge crowd last weekend to their displays.   

And the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art will hold its Día de los Muertos on Sunday, featuring a giant alebrije, a creature representing a spirit and an altar through the design of visiting artist Miguel Bolívar from Mexico.  

Mattie Rhodes has two locations, on the Westside and this building in the Northeast, decorated with colorful murals.
Mattie Rhodes has two locations, on the Westside and this building in the Northeast, decorated with colorful murals. (Mary Sanchez | Flatland)

Only in Dying do Humans Truly Awaken

There’s a continuum to how Día de los Muertos was introduced to the local Mexican American community in the early 1990s and how it’s grown in significance, becoming a widely recognized tradition, celebrated among many cultures.  

And now, to this, a new way to emphasize its existence in the cemeteries of Mexico and apply Aztec concepts of life and death to aid the modern ravages of gun violence and drug use in North American Latino society.  

Initially, local awareness of the traditions was best known among local artists, especially those tied to Anglo ex-pat artistic communities in Oaxaca, Mexico. They were drawn to the skeleton figurines, the colorfulness of the altars and a spirituality that blended indigenous beliefs with Catholicism.  

Skulls made of sugar are a common part of altars built to honor deceased family members during Dia de los Muertos.
Skulls made of sugar are a common part of altars built to honor deceased family members during Día de los Muertos. (Mary Sanchez | Flatland)

In Kansas City, it was the advocacy and labor of the late Gilbert Guerrero Jr. who brought the traditions to the community.  

Guerrero was a beloved educator, part of the leadership at the Guadalupe Centers.  

In the early 1990s, Guerrero noted the ghoulish costumery and greediness for treats in lieu of a trick that was the focus of Halloween.  

As a scholar deeply aware of the pre-conquistador Aztecs, Guerrero realized that a rich history, one that offered healthy attitudes about life and death, wasn’t being tapped as resource and sense of community pride.  

So he built a small altar to the deceased at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception Downtown, which held a mass for All Souls Day. Next, he formed a giant paper mache calavera, or skeleton, sugar skulls and other items and began to teach young people associated with Guadalupe Centers.  

He died in 2017 at the age of 56.  

The annual gatherings proved popular and continued to grow.  

But about 10 years ago, tragedy became the instigator for what eventually led to the crosses that will be decorated this weekend.  

Joe Arce is the publisher and founder of Kansas City Hispanic News.  

In 2008, he called Fierro seeking help for his extended family after his grandnephew was murdered in a drive-by shooting in Kansas City, Kansas.  

At the time, there was little to help guide the family in their grief, to navigate local law enforcement and begin to contemplate where they are today, with a murder still unsolved.  

A cross to 17-year-old Jose Macias, Jr. will be a part of the displays this weekend on the Westside.   

Eventually, Fierro and Arce helped form the Latino Advocacy Taskforce to begin addressing the unmet needs of a community losing children to violence.  

The taskforce used to have annual balloon releases for surviving family members.  

The crosses are the next step, a growth of that advocacy.  

Arce has written about many of the homicides in his paper. And he’s repeated the stories on anniversaries, doing what he can to keep attention on the unsolved cases and when families are trying to raise funds for a scholarship in their loved one’s name.  

New immigrant families who suffer trauma are especially in need, Arce said.  

“They try to bear a lot of this on their own,” he said. “And some of them are so humble, that they don’t want to ask for help.”   

But the crosses, the familiarities of the traditions of Día de los Muertos are yet another way to connect and help.  

“What attracts you is the color and the vibrancy,” Fierro said. “But there’s a story behind every individual. It’s the story of their life.”

Mary Sanchez is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS/Flatland.

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