(NEW YORK) — This year, as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, many Mexican Americans will find solace in celebrating Día de los Muertos.
The holiday, which is celebrated from Oct. 31 through Nov. 2, is meant to honor loved ones that have passed away. People do so by setting up ofrendas, or altars, for those they’ve lost.
When she set up her ofrenda this year, Destiny Navaira included a photo of her grandmother, whose life was cut short by COVID-19.
The glossy photo stood among paper marigolds, teal sugar skulls, candles and even beef jerky for her cousin, who also died.
Navaira’s grandmother Consuela Llamas died from COVID-19 in December 2020. It was her who taught Navaira about the tradition behind the ofrenda, and the belief that it is a way for ancestors to come back from the world of the dead to visit their families for a few days.
Navaira said she is excited to celebrate Día de Los Muertos this year because it is also her grandparents’ anniversary and their spirits finally get to celebrate with family on Earth.
She said she found the process of making an altar for her late loved ones healing.
“I couldn’t invite my grandpa and not invite her, because she wouldn’t have it!” Navaira joked.
The native San Antonian recalled how her abuela spent two weeks on a ventilator before passing away, and her uncle Joe Navaira spent a month fighting for his life in a hospital bed. She’s not alone. Over half of Latinos living in the U.S. this year said that they know someone who has died from COVID-19, according to Pew Research.
“I’m angry that my family and I’ve lost family members, but at the same time, things happen in the world and all we can do is to make them better,” Navaira said.
In the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, Church of the Epiphany will celebrate Día de los Muertos with a community ofrenda. The church has been setting up a community ofrenda since the early 1970s to honor members of the community and Chicano leaders like Cesar Chavez and Sal Castro.
“There’s pain, and there’s celebration, and there’s memory,” said the Rev. Tom Carey of the ceremony.
Members of the community are invited to write the names of their late loved ones on a scroll and share their stories. Churchgoers will speak the names of the dead followed by cries of “Presente!” or “Present!” in English.
Along with a community altar, the church set up one altar made by students at Lincoln High School, one by the neighborhood council and another to honor those who have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Due to COVID-19, the church did not have its Día de los Muertos celebration in 2020. This year, it will have COVID-19 precautions in place.
“We want to really honor our culture and our customs and we don’t want them to disappear,” said Rev. Richard Estrada from the Church of the Epiphany. “We continue to celebrate our tradition on our heritage.”
Navaira said she’s spending this holiday surrounded by the music her Tejano legend uncle, Emilio Navaira, taught her.
She also has advice to help her non-Latino friends who’ve lost loved ones find peace.
“Take advantage of the time they have here with the people who they love while they’re here on Earth,” she said. “It’s important to talk about death as part of life. Yes, it’s sad. Yes, it is devastating that somebody literally isn’t in your life anymore because they are not physically here. But if you’re able to keep them alive, to do their favorite things, to tell stories of them, to have memories, even just a picture? I think that that can offer such peace to somebody who’s truly grieving somebody.”
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