As the sun sets and the nearby buildings cast a shadow on East Cesar Chavez Avenue, the photographs of four children are illuminated against paper Cempasúchil, or Marigolds. The faces of 10-year-old Darlyn Cristobal Cordova Valle from El Salvador, 8-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo from Guatemala, 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin from Guatemala and 10-month-old Mariee Juarez also from Guatemala are on display. They all passed away in the custody of the U.S. Border Patrol Control. This is their ofrenda.

Dia de los Muertos is a celebration of life, more than it is of death. The two-day celebration which runs from November 1st to the 2nd has long been a tradition that mixes both Catholic and Indigenous traditions and imagery in Mexican pueblos and households.

However, death has become a lot more real for many members of the Latinx community as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to an L.A. Times article, the pandemic has claimed more than 90,000 lives in Mexico which has ranked in fourth place worldwide with the number of COVID-19 related deaths. Cemeteries which are the main setting for these celebrations have been closed to the public.

On the U.S. side of the border, people of color continue to be the most affected by COVID-19. Anaheim Councilman Dr. Jose F. Moreno told Dimelo, “Because of economic situations some people have to live with other families in small households a lot of us also use public transportation and are frontline workers who need to find ways to make a living.”

While death looms over vulnerable members of the Latinx community, this year’s Dia de los Muertos is more real than ever. It also is an opportunity to highlight the resiliency of these communities.

In mid-October The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health revealed in an official new release that in the 99% of cases reported, 51% of deaths occurred among Latinx residents.

“It’s about really looking at our own mortality at our family and what that means,” said Rossana Esparaza, who along with her mother Ofelia is a professional altar maker and longtime resident of East Los Angeles. “The emphasis on ancestry and especially with what’s going on with the activism with Black Lives Matter, with what’s going on at the border, and the pandemic. It’s recalibrating our focus onto what’s important and knowing our identity and celebrating that identity.”

Ofelia first became involved with Dia de Los Muertos through the traditions she learned from the women in her family. It was through them she found her art in storytelling.

“We truly believe that when you’re doing an altar, you are actually creating a sacred space because of the intention and who it’s for and why we’re doing this,” said Ofelia. “People relate it to being in church and yes, it is related to that but in your own space. Your ancestors are always with you; they’re never gone.”

Ofelia was one of the Chicana pioneers who helped bring the art and traditions of Dia de los Muertos in the 1970s with Self Help Graphics, an East L.A. community arts center.

The woman in the hat is Ofelia who is adorning the altar with Cempasúchitl flowers in the parking lot of El Gallo Grill in East Los Angeles. (Photo by Frank Rojas)
The woman in the hat is Ofelia who is adorning the altar with Cempasúchitl flowers in the parking lot of El Gallo Grill in East Los Angeles. (Photo by Frank Rojas)

This year the pandemic forced the community center to find online alternatives to adapt their traditions and festivities. This included a virtual exhibition of ofrendas curated by Sandy Rodriguez which provides viewers a glimpse of altars made by local Latinx artists and activists. An hour-long virtual event of their 47th Annual Dia de los Muertos Celebration was also co-hosted by musician and scholar Martha Gonzalez and actress Annie Gonzalez. Lastly, Self Help Graphics hosted a community caravan with decorative cars that began at the East L.A. Civic Center and ended at their headquarters at 1300 E 1st Street.

The intentions are all to connect, which since mid-March is something many in the Latinx community has been longing for.

“All we can do is try to connect, and if we can’t connect physically then we connect like this (virtually),” Rosanna told Dimelo. “My mom has an ofrenda that she made in her room for this COVID-19 time and the intention is for the altar to be a portal of love and healing. It’s this constant connection, we need connection. All our ofrendas offer that, it’s like a bridge connecting not only the living and the dead, connecting generations.”

The connection was physically smaller in comparison to past events as a group of no more than 20 people gathered in the parking lot of El Gallo Grill. The smell of lighted candles filled past face masks as they also illuminated the faces of the four migrant children who passed in U.S. custody. Meanwhile, those in attendance walked up to the altar as they announced the names and or pictures of their loved ones, the rest would then say, “Presente.”

Ofelia walked around with sage as she blessed every photograph and the rest of the small group that gathered.

Jorge Rodriguez, who participated in the Chicano Moratorium and is a co-chair of the 50th Anniversary committee was in attendance that evening. As he stood in front of the altar his eyes began to tear up and his voice started to crack.

“To those who have laid their life on the line to get us to where we are at right now. They sacrificed a lot and many of them are unknown. They were participants in demonstrations and they pushed us forward. We are on their shoulders.”

Chicano Moratorium and community member, Jorge Rodriguez, paying his respects for other social activists who have lost their lives fighting. (Photo by Frank Rojas)
Chicano Moratorium and community member, Jorge Rodriguez, paying his respects for other social activists who have lost their lives fighting. (Photo by Frank Rojas)

Those in attendance responded, “Presente!”

Raul Cradona, his wife Lupe who is also a co-chair of the 50th Anniversary Committee, and their daughter Zia came out to the event to show their support.

“This particular altar, though it encompasses a lot of people from the Chicano Moratorium, it also includes people who have died this year due to COVID, ICE, and kids in detention centers,” Raul expressed. “We just wanted to be here in support of what they’re doing here.”

He saw it important that his daughter continues to be exposed to these long-lasting cultural traditions. “You need to know where you come from to know where you’re going.”

This Dia de los Muertos has seen a lot of changes and fewer faces than usual, however, the connection to ancestral roots and the storytelling of oral history remains the same, if not greater this year.

When asked what she would ask her great-grandmother Mama Pola, Ofelia puts both her hands over her heart as she lets out a small gasp of air. She tearfully but optimistically said,

“This year my sister who is a year younger than I died in July. My brother died in September and he knew Mama Pola. So if I could ask her it would be to just watch over me and my children and to connect with my brother and my sister.”

Ofelia and Rossana have created a large-scale altar as a part of Grand Park’s Noche de Ofrendas. They along with other local community organizations including Black Lives Matter and South Central Farm have set up altars that will be on display for free to the public until November 4th. Face masks and social distancing are required.

Altar that Ofelia and her daughter Rosanna worked on in Grand Park that is a part of their traditional Noche de Ofrendas. (Photo by Frank Rojas)
Altar that Ofelia and her daughter Rosanna worked on in Grand Park that is a part of their traditional Noche de Ofrendas. (Photo by Frank Rojas)