Día de los Muertos celebrations adapt during pandemic

Despite the challenges, USC students and Los Angeles residents find new ways to celebrate.

Día de los Muertos, which translates to “Day of the Dead” in English, is a Mexican holiday for families and communities to celebrate the life and death of their ancestors. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic presents newfound challenges for families to celebrate their loved ones who have passed.

In the state of California, Latinos account for over 60% of coronavirus cases and almost 50% of COVID-19 deaths, going to show the significance of the holiday within the Los Angeles community.

Rosa Miranda works for Community Power Collective, an organization that provides economic help to low-income residents of the greater L.A. area. She said that many of their usual vendors have been greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. “So many Latinos and in particular, vendors, have passed away because of the coronavirus,” Miranda said.

Community Power Collective plans to have community members place something of their own on the organization’s Día de los Muertos altar. “This altar more than anything is a commentary of our community,” Miranda said.

USC students like Jessica Vela Guevara, a junior mechanical engineering major, have adapted in order to preserve the spirit of the holiday. Guevara has an altar at home in honor of her great grandfather and grandfather. It features cempasúchil flowers and some of their favorite fruits and treats like bananas, the traditional bread hojaldras and even whiskey.

Members of the Mexican community have already downsized their usual large, festive celebrations of Día de los Muertos, swapping flamboyant parades for virtual performances and small family gatherings. Guevara normally celebrates Día de los Muertos with visits to the cemetery and large dinners in the company of family and friends. She said that the pandemic has limited the size of celebrations and put a damper on the festivities.

“With my family here, it’s a little less involved with other family members to try and maintain the social distance, because some people are a lot more sensitive to the situation this year,” Guevara said. “With the family members who are okay with gathering you can still do that, but it does feel a little less festive.”

Attending church has remained an important part of Guevara’s family celebrations after they moved to the US from Mexico, but COVID-19 restrictions have left them unable to attend this year.

“It’s more me and my family of four cooking food here, some traditional bread and setting up our own altar,” said Guevara in regards to her family’s modified celebrations. “But I don’t think we’ll have the same opportunities to celebrate with our church community as much.”

María Fernanda Echeverri, a senior majoring in Architecture, is also prioritizing honoring her loved ones and maintaining a sense of community.

“My roommates and I all experienced losses in the pandemic, so honoring the deceased this year is more important than ever,” USC Senior María Fernanda Echeverri said. “We have all agreed that we would go to Mass, light candles and attempt to keep that intimate community together but we definitely have to try more to keep our community unified”.

In addition to attending Mass, Echeverri and her family have turned to group FaceTimes to stay connected with their family members.

“The sense of family and community is still there," Echevveri said. "We do lots of group FaceTimes, watching my grandparents try and FaceTime is pretty hilarious.”

Though Guevara already found it difficult to attend Día de los Muertos events at USC in past years during “midterm season,” that sense has been heightened this semester. Having fallen victim to Zoom fatigue, Guevara has not attended virtual USC events celebrating the holiday this year.

“It’s not because I wouldn’t care. It’s just that my semester has been very busy, especially with Zoom fatigue,” she said. Spending so much of her daily life on Zoom, she said, “for the other festivities, I like to just be with my family.”

Past festivities have included a Day of the Dead showcase by Grupo Folklorico at the USC Village in 2019 with traditional food and a joint celebration between La Casa de USC, USC Libraries, the Spanish Undergrad Association and Omega Phi Beta.

Guevara acknowledged that USC’s celebrations help to preserve the traditions and educate other students about the cultural significance of Día de los Muertos that they otherwise wouldn’t know.

Guevara finds comfort in Facetime and phone calls with family members still in Mexico, feeling the same filial connection virtually that she typically would in person.

“Even if you can’t be together with all your family and friends and make a big dinner, you can still make dinner within your home, and then you hear how your other family members are in their homes doing the same thing,” Guevara said. “It creates a warm feeling in your heart that you’re all in this.”