FRESNO, Calif. -- It's probably safe to say that the Dia de los Muertos celebration is the busiest time of year for Leticia Valencia.
"When the kids give me a hug, I love this part... it is my pay," said the Visalia woman. If you've been to any Latin events around the Valley, you may have seen her: she's the one standing about seven feet tall dressed as a skeleton.
"La Catrina," a tall female skeleton, is a popular symbol of Dia de los Muertos. Since she's from the South Valley, Valencia is known as La Catrina de Visalia. She dons her attire about ten times per year, attending multiple events each time. This week, she's attending multiple Day of the Dead events.
"In the Dia de Los Muertos tradition, in Mexico, we have the belief that the spirit of our loved ones who died return every November 2nd," she said in Spanish. "It's a tradition very important to us."
Valencia has a different dress every time she goes out, completely handmade by her and her husband on their dime.
"I'm on stilts and it's very hard... and the dress is very heavy sometimes," she said. The ensembles are exuberant and can weigh upwards of 35 pounds, which she has to balance while on stilts. The attire is so large that she puts on makeup in her studio at home and then puts on the rest when she gets to her destination.
"For us, it's a great responsibility," Valencia said in Spanish. "It's not about dressing up, making your dress and going out. You have to know your culture and love it and be grateful for this country to give us the opportunity to recognize a little bit of our roots in Mexico."
She went to a school for the first time this week, surprising the kids at Ewing Elementary in East Central Fresno.
"I didn't tell my students that she was coming," said Yuréli Mandujano, who teaches dual immersion at Ewing and asked Valencia to visit the school after seeing her on social media. "I just wanted them to be surprised because of how gorgeous she is."
Valencia spoke to the students and then visited Mandunano's class, which features a traditional Dia de los Muertos altar as the students learn about the holiday.
Woman Transforms Into La Catrina for Dia de los Muertos