COVID-19 deaths among Latinos remembered in Day of the Dead celebrations across the Bay Area

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- The cancelation of the large Day of the Dead celebration in San Jose created both a problem and an opportunity for artist Phyllis Carrasco.

For years, she had been assembling special Day of the Dead altars as part of a public exhibit at San Jose's Martin Luther King Jr. Library.

"This year is quite different because of COVID. We can't gather," explained Carrasco.

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The exhibit was canceled because of the pandemic, so the San Jose Multicultural Artists Guild, which sponsors the altar display, asked artists to create altars in private homes for a virtual celebration.

About 12 artists created altars. Carrasco started making one in a friend's backyard. She usually includes photos and personal items of loved ones and community leaders from the San Jose area who have passed away.

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But this year, she added a new photo of Arcelia Martinez, one of the first people to die from COVID-19 in the Bay Area. Martinez's family helped create the altar with Carrasco.

"It's sad to say there will probably be a lot of altars this year because of COVID. It's a sign of our times right now," said Carrasco.

Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, is a tradition that dates back centuries in Mexico and Central America.

The altars remember people who have passed away. Families place their loved ones' favorite food or drinks on the altar, along with bright orange marigolds to attract their souls back from the afterlife for one day, on Nov. 2.

The altars are put in homes, but public altar displays are gaining in popularity. So are large celebrations.

The San Jose Multicultural Artists Guild had to cancel its large event, but held one virtually last weekend complete with Aztec dancers, storytelling and performances. It also created a video montage of the altars created by artists in their homes.



Oakland's Unity Council, which hosts a large celebration in the Fruitvale District each year, also canceled its event this year. Instead, it posted videos on making sugar skulls and papel picado decorations. (Link here)

San Francisco's annual nighttime procession has also been canceled. The public altar display that followed has been modified.

"Pre-COVID we would set up at the park. Last year, we had 125 community altars and five altars representing the elements. This year, we brought the five altars indoors so we can honor our ancestors," said Rosa De Anda, founder of the Marigold Project.

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The group had artists create altars inside the Mission Cultural Center and recorded a special ceremony that will be streamed on YouTube and Facebook on Nov. 2. Click here to watch the ceremony

"Every altar this year is dedicated to the people that have died from COVID or violence," said De Anda.

One altar, honoring air, is made up of 1,000 paper origami cranes. "It represents 1,000 children that have died due to COVID," explained De Anda.

Several community altars were also set up in front of the large windows facing the sidewalk along Mission Street. Georgina Queruel created one honoring farmworkers.

"We dedicated it to them for all the tremendous hard work that they do, to all those people who are working in the farms and coming down with COVID and dying from it," said Queruel, who placed face masks and gloves on the altar next to a United Farmworkers flag.

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In San Jose, Teatro Vision debated for months on what to do with its annual Day of the Dead play. It decided to record and stream it. To watch the performance click here

"The play happens in the afterlife. We learn about the importance of life and the power of community, which is not about one individual. It's about what everyone does to benefit everyone," said Rodrigo Garcia, artistic director of Teatro Vision.

To exemplify that message of community, the actors wore masks and face shields during the recording, but the essence of the play was not changed because of COVID-19. Garcia said it didn't have to.

The message of Day of the Dead is already about honoring those who have died by celebrating their lives.

"So many people have lost a loved one to COVID. In knowing that those relationships do not end with COVID, that gives us a sense of hope and a sense of purpose that I feel at this moment is very much needed," said Garcia.

"Day of the Dead is a celebration of life," said Carrasco. "It's a good way to discuss death with your friends and family. It's ok to mention your grandmother's cooking or your grandfather's favorite sport. It celebrates their lives not their deaths. And we all deserve to be remembered."

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