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For many Latinos, virus looms over Day of Dead

People of color have been hit hard by COVID pandemic

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Sebastian Diaz Aguirre places incense in a Day of the Dead altar dedicated to his father, who died in a nursing home in Mexico last month, Wednesday , Oct. 28, 2020 in the Brooklyn borough of New York "It feels extremely comforting. I do feel I have a connection with my dad," said Diaz Aguirre, who set up his first ofrenda, or altar, since moving to the U.S. eight years ago.
Sebastian Diaz Aguirre places incense in a Day of the Dead altar dedicated to his father, who died in a nursing home in Mexico last month, Wednesday , Oct. 28, 2020 in the Brooklyn borough of New York "It feels extremely comforting. I do feel I have a connection with my dad," said Diaz Aguirre, who set up his first ofrenda, or altar, since moving to the U.S. eight years ago. (AP Photo/Emily Leshner) (damian dovarganes/Associated Press) Photo Gallery

PHOENIX — Matilde Gomez wants her mother, Gume, to know how much she appreciates her love and sacrifices. So, she’s putting her feelings into a letter.

Only Gume Salazar will never get to read it.

Instead, it’s going on a table in Gomez’s home in Arizona that’s dedicated to her mother, who died of COVID-19. It will sit alongside fresh flowers and Salazar’s blouse on Day of the Dead, a holiday that Salazar actually didn’t care for much.

Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, the annual Mexican tradition of reminiscing about departed loved ones with colorful altars, or ofrendas, is typically celebrated Nov. 1-2. It will undoubtedly be harder for Latino families in the U.S. torn apart by the coronavirus. Some are mourning more than one relative, underscoring the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on communities of color. Adding to the misery, people can’t gather for the holiday because of the health risks.

Gomez’s mother and uncle died of the virus a month apart this summer. The siblings in their 50s had no underlying health conditions. Gomez only spoke to her mother on the phone once before she died in a California hospital.

Day of the Dead usually revolves around an altar in the home or at a graveside of photos of the dead, their important belongings and even favorite foods. They often are adorned with marigolds, which are believed to draw the souls of the dead.

Normally, the holiday would bring processions in cities with large Latino communities, and mourners would eat, sing and share memories. COVID-19 has scuttled those plans but hasn’t stopped people from erecting altars to enjoy online or outdoors.

Mother and daughter Chicana artists Ofelia and Rosanna Esparza have overseen the design of an altar at Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles since 2013. It’s one of 11 huge altars on display in a collaboration between the county park and Self Help Graphics, an organization highlighting Latino artists and social justice. Ofelia, 88, is a fifth-generation altar-maker, and both were cultural advisers on Disney-Pixar’s “Coco,” a movie centered around Day of the Dead.

They built a 24-by-14-foot ofrenda of photos contributed by the community, candles, votives and tissue-paper marigolds.

“Because of the quarantine and the COVID, there’s this heightened awareness of the losses that are occurring not just in our city but around the globe,” said Rosanna Esparza, whose cousin died of a suspected coronavirus infection, while four other relatives recovered from COVID-19. “I just feel like there’s a heightened awareness and more of a sense of reverence for life.”

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