KTEP - El Paso, Texas

LA Latinos Mark El Día De Los Muertos In 'A Nightmare Year' Of Loss

Nov 2, 2020
Originally published on November 2, 2020 8:13 am

Just like everything else this year, Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is different. One commemoration in East Los Angeles included a socially distanced car parade. Decked-out lowriders cruised down Whittier Boulevard in a caravan, past Evergreen Cemetery, all the way to Self Help Graphics & Art in Boyle Heights. The community art center had to cancel its annual celebration because of the pandemic, but artists are still showing the altars they built for the dead here in a virtual exhibition.

Consuelo Flores created one ofrenda with photos of Black and Latino victims of COVID-19. "They have the most fatalities, the most exposure and therefore they bring the exposure of the virus home to their families," she says. She points to one picture of a five-year-old girl. "Both of her parents worked at hospitals caring for victims of COVID, and they brought that home and she died," Flores says.

In her ofrenda, The Roots of Our Resistance, Consuelo Flores pins photographs of first responders lost in the COVID-19 pandemic to marigolds that evoke 3D models of the virus.
Mandalit del Barco / NPR

Flores calls her ofrenda "The Roots of our Resistance." From the ceiling, she hung upside-down tree branches to look like roots. Attached to them are yellow and red marigolds that resemble 3D models of the coronavirus. And pinned to the flowers are photos of first responders who died of the disease.

"Those who cannot self isolate, like these essential workers, they are the backbone of our society," says Flores.

To make the point, she's strung together small spinal columns made of coyote bones. They're also attached to the roots. And uneven strings of flowers also hang down, Flores says, because the world is not balanced now.

She says the altar she made this year hits close to home because her husband almost died from the SARS coronavirus last year. "He was in intensive care and it was incredibly, extraordinarily scary because there's nothing you can do," she says. "It is really the strength of the virus versus the strength of the body."

Flores has another altar at the outdoor Día de los Muertos commemoration open to the public in downtown LA.

Ofelia Esparza's community altar at Grand Park in Los Angeles.
Beau Ryan

Across from City Hall, at Grand Park, Ofelia Esparza and her family also set up a 20-foot-wide, three-level ofrenda for the community. They blessed it with an eagle feather, they burned sage and said aloud the names of people who died this year. The altar is decorated with real and handmade paper marigolds, embroidered lace, tapestries and framed photographs of those who have died, including Esparza's beloved family members.

"I just lost a sister and a brother and his wife, one of my nephews and a brother in law," recalls Esparza. "It's a nightmare year."

A participant drives in the Día de los Muertos car parade in East Los Angeles on Sunday.
Mandalit del Barco / NPR

Esparza says COVID-19 took her nephew quickly at the hospital in just two weeks. And safety precautions at nursing homes meant her sister, brother and his wife spent their final days isolated and alone. "They died without any family member," says Esparza. "That's unnatural for us."

Ofelia Esparza has lived in East LA, all of her 89 years. The former elementary school teacher is a well known altarista, creating Day of the Dead altars with her children and grandchildren. She says it's one of the traditions her mother brought when she immigrated from Guanajuato, Mexico. Esparza says they always leave mementos at the ofrendas, and share family stories so the memories live on.

"You know, just as long as we remember them and we still talk about them, they're still part of our life. They become part of that pantheon of ancestors that I pray to, like our guardian angels," she says. "So it's for everyone to contemplate and to remember how our life is so brief. Make it a beautiful life as much as we can, to love and to respect one another."

Esparza says that Día de los Muertos message is especially poignant this year.

Nina Gregory edited this story.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yesterday and today, Mexicans and others with Latino heritage marked the Day of the Dead. This year's holiday is especially poignant with so many lives lost to the coronavirus. We bring you two stories now, beginning with NPR's Carrie Kahn in Mexico City.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: For many Mexicans, it's very important to visit a gravesite to properly honor loved ones on Day of the Dead. In these times of COVID, that's not easy. Cemeteries have been ordered shut. And many more people are being cremated. Geraldo Flores Mendez (ph) says that's not an option in his devoutly Catholic family.

GERALDO FLORES MENDEZ: (Through interpreter) You know, some say life here on Earth can be so difficult it can feel like hell. So why would you want to burn yourself twice?

KAHN: He's kidding, of course - all part of the dark humor of Day of the Dead, a day more somber this year. Late last March, four of Geraldo's siblings, all living in Brooklyn, N.Y., were hit with COVID. One of the brothers, Javier (ph), says he was the first to get symptoms.

JAVIER: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: And he says Crisensio was the last. At 56 years old, never married and a stickler about his health, relatives were surprised Crisensio got so sick. Within a week, he was hospitalized, then put on a ventilator.

JAVIER: (Through interpreter) The doctors told us there wasn't much more they could do for him and that if someone wanted to visit him, they could. We all three rushed to the hospital. We begged the receptionist to let us all go. We got to him just before he died.

KAHN: Javier says he broke the news to the family back home in Mexico. His father made him promise Crisensio wouldn't be cremated, they would bring his body home. That set off a three-month odyssey through mind-numbing bureaucracy. Javier says by June, he'd finally secured all the paperwork. But with New York still in the grips of the outbreak, they could only give Crisensio a quick final goodbye.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: Crisensio's coffin was whisked to the airport and then finally transported to their small town of Huehuepiaxtla in the state of Puebla.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIREWORKS EXPLODING)

KAHN: As the hearse carrying Crisensio's body entered the town, fireworks shot through the sky.

(APPLAUSE)

KAHN: The small crowd broke into applause and mariachi trumpets blared.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAHN: The brothers in New York had made good on their promise. Brother Geraldo says it was a bittersweet day when Crisensio came home to rest. In the main room of their home, Geraldo says the family has set up an ofrenda - or altar - with pictures of Crisensio, flowers, his favorite foods and candles.

MENDEZ: (Through interpreter) Our dead come to visit us around midday, so you put up their altar. And you have to make sure you have a path of flowers leading from the doorway right up to it so they find their way home.

KAHN: The first year an altar goes up is particularly significant. There are many new altars this day of the dead, including 18 others who died in New York and are from Crisensio's hometown. More than 90,000 have died in Mexico so far from COVID-19, the fourth largest death toll in the world.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: This is Mandalit del Barco in East Los Angeles, where this year's Day of the Dead commemoration is also very different. It included a socially distant car parade.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE REVVING)

DEL BARCO: Decked-out lowriders cruised down Whittier Boulevard in a caravan past a cemetery all the way to Self-Help Graphics in Boyle Heights. The community art center had to cancel its annual celebration because of the pandemic. But online, artists are showing altars they built for the dead. Consuelo Flores created one ofrenda, as they're known, with photos of Black and Latino victims of COVID-19.

CONSUELO FLORES: They have the most fatalities, the most exposure and, therefore, they bring the virus home to their families. For example, this little girl here, I think she was 5 years old when she died. Both her parents worked at hospitals caring for victims of COVID.

DEL BARCO: Flores calls her ofrenda "The Roots Of Our Resistance." From the ceiling, she hung upside-down tree branches to look like roots. Attached to them are yellow and red marigolds that resemble 3D models of the coronavirus and photos of first responders who died of the disease.

FLORES: Those who cannot self-isolate, like these essential workers, they are the backbone of our society.

DEL BARCO: To make the point, she strung together small spinal columns made of coyote bones. She says the altar she made this year hits close to home.

FLORES: Because my husband almost died from the SARS coronavirus. He was in intensive care. And it was incredibly, extraordinarily scary.

DEL BARCO: Flores has another altar at the outdoor Dia de los Muertos commemoration open to the public in downtown LA.

(SOUNDBITE OF RATTLE SHAKING)

DEL BARCO: Across from city hall at Grand Park, Ofelia Esparza and her family also set up a 20-foot-wide, three-level ofrenda for the community. They blessed it with an eagle feather and a rattle. They burned sage and said aloud the names of people who died this year.

OFELIA ESPARZA: Benjamin Esparza.

DEL BARCO: The ofrenda is decorated with real and handmade paper marigolds and framed photographs of those who have died, including Esparza's beloved family members.

ESPARZA: I just lost my sister and a brother and his wife, one of my nephews. It's a nightmare year.

DEL BARCO: Esparza says COVID-19 took her nephew quickly at the hospital in just two weeks. And safety precautions at nursing homes meant her sister, brother and his wife spent their final days isolated and alone.

ESPARZA: They died without any family member.

DEL BARCO: Ofelia Esparza has lived in East LA all of her 89 years. The former elementary school teacher is a well-known altarista (ph), creating Day of the Dead altars with her children and grandchildren. She says it's one of the traditions her mother brought when she immigrated from Guanajuato, Mexico. Esparza says they always leave mementos at the ofrendas and share family stories so the memories live on.

ESPARZA: You know, just as long as we remember them and we still talk about them, they're still part of our life. They become part of that pantheon of ancestors that I pray to like our guardian angels. And so it's for everyone to contemplate and to remember how, you know, our life is so brief. Make it a beautiful life as much as we can, to love and to respect one another.

DEL BARCO: Esparza says that Dia de los Muertos message is especially poignant this year.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, East Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REMEMBER ME")

GAEL GARCIA BERNAL, GABRIELLA FLORES AND LIBERTAD GARCIA FONZI: (Singing) Remember me, though, I have to travel far. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.