By Kassidy Arena, Iowa Public Radio
Alejandra Piña felt numb.
She needed to plan. She said there was no time to cry during that August day.
Her grandfather José Manuel Mejia Rodriguez, known simply as Manuel, had died. He was just 72, otherwise healthy, but he lost his battle against COVID-19 and died quickly after contracting it.
Mejia had a big impact in raising Piña and her cousins. She calls him her second father. And it was up to her to handle most of the funeral arrangements. Her mother, Mejia’s daughter, was so distraught, Piña said she could no longer comprehend English in her grief.
Piña, 26, interpreted everything from Mejia’s medical care to the flowers at his funeral.
“I had to step into her shoes and take over everything since the day he went to the hospital until the day he was buried underground,” she said. The process was especially difficult due to funeral homes being backed up with an influx of other COVID-19 deaths.
Fortunately, Piña and others in the family were able to be with Mejia when he died in the hospital.
Piña recalled all of this in her home in Des Moines. It was hard not to, especially as she set up the altar on a small table in her entryway.
Her grandmother Maria de Jesus de la Cruz, “Chuy,” — pronounced like “chewie” — helped her set up the flowers, candles and photos of Mejia. The two had been married for about 50 years and both came from Mexico.
As she and Piña stood in front of the altar, Chuy kept bringing her hand to her heart as she described the decorations.
“Well this is what we arranged to kind of give us a little bit of joy. Because we know he is not actually present, but he is present in our hearts,” she said.
The table in Piña’s home with memories of her grandfather was in celebration of Día de los Muertos. The holiday begins Nov. 1 and goes through Nov. 2. It’s traditionally celebrated in Mexico and it’s a time for families to remember the lives of their loved ones who have died.
As Piña and so many other know, the COVID-19 pandemic added to those numbers exponentially. COVID-19 had a disproportionate effect on Latinos all over the country.
As the holiday grew nearer, Chuy said some strange things have been happening around the house. The bamboo pot fell–or was pushed–off the table once. And while she cooked, her keys were thrown from the counter.
“A lot of different things,” Chuy said.
Piña chimed in, in English, “Weird stuff like, that never happened before.” Chuy nodded, eyes wide: “sí, sí.”
“We know that he’s still taking care of us and we don’t see him but we know he’s here. And we always remember him when we can,” Piña said.
The second her grandfather is brought up, Piña immediately tells long stories about him and how he impacted her life.
There’s funny stories, like how he put up with shenanigans from her younger cousins and teased Chuy. And there’s sad ones, like the empty space he left when Piña performs as a charro on horseback.
“So, it’s been hard adjusting, but we remember him all the time,” she said. As she spoke, her eyes filled with tears, which she held back with deep breaths and calm smiles.
Piña told all these stories to a filmmaker.
Local filmmaker Vincent Valdez went to Piña’s family for his series of films about Iowa Latinos who have died of COVID-19. He heard how Piña’s grandfather died of the virus, and decided to feature him and the family for one of the films.
“We’re really honored to share his memory with everybody else,” Piña said. “It’s a good representation of his memory because he helped, I think, all of his grandchildren be the person they are today.”
Valdez is making four short films to honor people like Piña’s grandfather in the collection: Día de los Muertos: Recuerdos. He said the process for four films took almost a full year.
All of the videos are commissioned by the Des Moines Art Center and will air on its website. Valdez has made films for the Día de los Muertos celebration since 2004, but this is the first time he’s chosen to make more than one.
They all focus on who he calls “regular” people. People who made small impacts in their community. Like Manuel, who was a loving and supportive grandfather to Piña. He also did films about Joseph Perez Sr., Kathleen A. Burris and Antonia C. Leon.
“COVID-19 doesn’t hit the elite. It doesn’t hit the special people, it hits everybody, all of us, regular people. So, their stories are important. They’re tragic. But within that tragedy in their stories, there is some beautiful things,” he said.
Film, he said, is such a powerful, yet sometimes overlooked, tool for a holiday like Día de los Muertos.
“This is a vehicle for them to, you know, tell the stories of their loved ones,” he said.
The Des Moines Art Center has attracted thousands of attendees at Día de los Muertos events in the past. Valdez’s films are projected at the annual celebration of life. In 2012, he focused on veterans and those who lost their lives in war. Valdez interviewed Vietnam War veteran Fred Leon for that year’s film.
Leon said at times, being in one of Valdez’s Día de los Muertos films could get pretty emotional, remembering people who are no longer around and the reasons why they aren’t.
“[Film is] truly moment in time, you know?” Leon said. He explained written words can only do so much. “They’re just words. You don’t really know what the intent of the word is. Or when they were writing it, if it’s what the true emotion of it was. Were they crying when they were writing it? You know what I mean? So a picture tells a different story, doesn’t it? Every picture, that’s what they say, you know? You can’t hide tears.”
The Leon’s and Valdez’s have known each other since they came to West Des Moines after the Mexican Revolution around 1917 to 1919.
“All the stories he takes, he does a really good job of finding those issues and angles that suck you in, you know? That’s why he’s so good at what he does,” Leon said. Although, he did admit it’s an odd experience to see yourself, and the paths you chose, in a film that will be on the internet forever.
The 70-year-old veteran said Valdez’s work has an important purpose for the Mexican culture. His films are keeping people’s memories alive. He explained no one is truly dead until no one remembers them anymore.
“That’s why this Day of the Dead thing is kind of important thing is that you have friends or people in your life and you continue to tell those stories of those people left behind you, that keeps their name alive, and they’re still alive. And then hopefully, your sons or daughters or friends will continue to tell those stories,” he said.
Valdez admitted that’s a lot of responsibility. The historian and documentarian said it’s difficult to capture the lives COVID-19 claimed in just four or five minutes. It becomes very personal.
“I become really absorbed into the story and, and there’s joy there, there’s interest, and there’s also sorrow, because they, I think about my parents, my grandparents, all the people who have passed on and, and how much I love them, and how I want them to be remembered,” he said.
Valdez worked for the Des Moines police department for 32 years and as the public information officer for about two years. Now, at 68, he’s able to devote his time to his filmmaking and his community history.
The transition didn’t seem so crazy to him, because he had always been interested in capturing people’s stories on camera. As the PIO for the police department, he created the Facebook page and a film about Black officers for the website.
“My favorite part about making documentaries is being able to tell stories about people that would have never [been] known about these people. They’re interesting to me and a lot of the people that I talk about, are just like other people in someone else’s neighborhood. So I just think that’s what really is interesting to me,” he said.
Mia Buch, the museum educator at the Des Moines Art Center said she thinks Valdez’s films bring together Iowa communities—no matter if Día de los Muertos is part of their heritage or not. She’s part of the Art Center’s Día de los Muertos committee with Valdez.
“I think it brings the direct community connection. Because Día de los Muertos as a concept is something that everyone can kind of take some kind of ownership of no matter you know, what you celebrate, we all love people, we all lose people,” she said. “But the way Vince creates these films, is he directly relates it to the community.”
This is the second time the Art Center’s Día de los Muertos celebration is virtual, which Valdez said kind of puts an emphasis on the digital elements of the celebration. That includes his films, but also the graphic design work his colleague creates.
Connie Wilson designed this year’s Día de los Muertos logo with monarch butterflies. In some Mexican folklore, when the monarch butterfly flies south during this time, it represents the souls of ancestors returning to their families. And her artwork was included in each of Valdez’s films.
“That’s been one of the really fun things about working with him and the committee is that I’ve learned so much about it, you know? And I’ve gotten to really know more about the culture,” Wilson said.
She described Valdez as a passionate, enthusiastic worker. He’s motivated to share stories and culture with anyone he crosses paths with.
“He’s very focused. He’s very inquisitive. He’s very thorough. He asks a lot of questions and you can tell that he’s very trusted because people tell him all sorts of things. And in that way, his stories really become personal and they really become real. You know, he’s really good at making the lives of these people interesting to people don’t know them,” Wilson added.
And although Wilson, Buch and Valdez agree it’s not the same when people can’t gather in person, a virtual celebration does allow for even more people to participate from their own homes. The Art Center is still offering a take-home art projects and activity kits.
“That’s another element that we can present to the public that shows them: See? This is something that you celebrate as well, many of you do. So it’s really fun to be able to share that culture with people and they realize that, hey, I want to be a part of this too,” Valdez added.
He said he hopes the films will inspire people to learn about their own families and the stories that come with them.
Piña said this year’s Día de los Muertos is really different. She’ll be remembering the life of her grandfather, who she calls a second father.
“I think it’s an honor. And I think he’ll be really happy,” Piña said about her grandfather and the film honoring his life.
She’s never participated in the Art Center’s celebration before. But now, she’ll log on to watch her own story and the others like her.
As for Valdez, he said he is “almost desperate” to gather the stories from his community’s elders, and continue his work in making sure stories don’t depend solely on word of mouth.