A Día To Remember Lives Lost To COVID-19

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Veronica Guevara holds a candle in front of her home altar in preparation for Día de los Muertos on Thursday. The candles were distributed at her grandmother's funeral with her name, birthdate and death date printed on them. "I thought they looked pretty so I put them here," Guevara said. "But I just can't bring myself to actually turning them on. I want to preserve them." She used electric candles instead. Phot Kassidy Arena / IPR
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By Kassidy Arena, Iowa Public Radio News

Día de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday on which family members who have died are remembered. But this year, more souls are being remembered than in the past because of the high number of deaths caused by COVID-19, especially among Latinos. As a result, one woman is celebrating a life she didn’t expect to this year.

Veronica Guevara stands in front of her altar for Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, in her living room. It’s right beside her TV. It has only black and white photographs and they’re surrounded by colorful paper decorations called papel picado, candles and candy. She said she tried to keep it as traditional as possible by not using many Christian symbolism.

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“We have water and then we have salt and a little bit of tequila, that was what my grandfather liked to drink when he drank,” Guevara said while she pointed to each addition on the ofrenda.

Guevara’s grandfather who liked tequila died from COVID-19 on May 27. It was right before his 90th birthday. Even though he had lived a long life, Guevara said she and her family were not expecting to put his picture up on the altar this year.

“I mean, he was still so full of life still, you know, he had the energy to bicker with my grandma, and, you know, kind of yell at us when we were out of line,” Guevara said. “He was so full of life, and we wouldn’t have pictured him not being around right now. And so obviously, COVID changed that.”

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Día de los Muertos is a traditional Mexican holiday in which family members who have died may come back to the land of the living. That’s why the ones still living put out food and water so their relatives may replenish their energy. It’s not a scary holiday like Halloween, rather a day to remember the lives that have been lost. And this year, many more lives will have to be remembered.

“This holiday, you know, it’s very sacred, and it’s a combination of joy and sorrow,” Guevara said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hispanic people have comprised 24.2 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the United States, when they only make up 18.5 percent of the population. But now, again because of COVID-19, those people’s lives cannot be properly celebrated. A month after Guevara’s grandfather died, he finally had his funeral in Mexico, which Guevara watched on Zoom. The cemeteries there are closed to limit big crowds.

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“So that made me sad, that, you know, their graves will be alone. But, you know, I feel like, since we have our altars, you know, they still won’t feel alone,” Guevara said.

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And one organization is trying their best to lift up everyone’s spirits on Día de los Muertos by offering a virtual celebration for people like Guevara, who can’t travel to Mexico right now, on Nov. 2. Liliana Velasco works for La Luz Centro Cultural in Hampton. One of her roles is to educate the community about Latino culture. She said since COVID took so many lives and so many traditions with it, people have to get creative. For those who are close enough to celebrate in person, Velasco said La Luz will hand out pan de muerto and crafts.

“A lot of those celebrations are going to, you know, have to be from home. So, I think it is going to be celebrated everywhere in just a different way,” Velasco said.

Veronica Guevara painted her daughter Emma’s face like a sugar skull while she was working on her altar for Día de los Muertos. Guevara said Emma, 2, tried to take the candy from the altar. “I was like, ‘no, that’s my grandma’s. That’s your great grandpa’s,'” Guevara said. “‘She set it down and then asked me to give her her own candy.”

Guevara is doing just that. She is still teaching her two year old daughter Emma about the holiday and plans to watch Disney’s Coco on Nov. 1.

“I think it looks interesting to her, but I think she’s definitely still too young to, you know, fully grasp it,” Guevara said. “But I definitely want to keep exposing her.” Guevara said when she was younger, she did not have the same opportunity as Emma does now. She said Iowa is much more open to Día de los Muertos imagery now.

But Guevara said she wishes she had more time to ask her grandfather and so many other relatives, questions about their lives.

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“For me, it just feels like it’s losing so much history, so that I won’t be able to tell my daughter because I just never took the opportunity to ask,” Guevara said.

Guevara said this “new normal” of watching family members pass away without proper burials and remembrance traditions can be pretty tough.

“So we’re trying to respond and recover while we’re still in the midst of it. And so that just makes it more complicated. And that’s kind of how we feel about just the way the world has changed,” Guevara said. “And just my family’s experiences this year with, with family members passing away and just all of it.”

Her family’s experience with COVID-19 goes beyond just losing her grandfather, her mother and grandmother were also hospitalized with severe symptoms.

But Guevara said the most important part of Día de los Muertos is remembering the good times with her family. Like the way her grandmother pretended not to understand English, laughing with her great-aunt, or how her grandfather liked to drink tequila.

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