Día de los Muertos 2021: Honoring those who have died from COVID-19

By Irvin Ibarra and Valentina Pucarelli

When the pandemic halted the National Museum of Mexican Art’s in-person celebrations for Día de los Muertos last year, Pilsen resident Isabel Hernandez created a giant seven-layered ofrenda at her house. The altar with offerings to the dead was dedicated to neighborhood residents, a tribute she continued for Día de los Muertos this year.

“I decided to honor the Pilsen residents, to pay a tribute to the community,” Hernandez said. “A lot of people that have died from COVID, or other diseases or other problems … this makes losing a loved one less sad.”

During the interview with the Chronicle, Hernandez pointed out the photos of people on the ofrenda who died from COVID-19. The photos were sent to her by Pilsen residents to be publicly displayed.

The pandemic’s disproportionate impact on communities of color is reflected on the altars dedicated to the individuals who have died from COVID-19.

Mario Hernandez, gallery education coordinator for the National Museum of Mexican Art, organized the museum’s Day of the Dead Xicago celebration in Harrison Park, near the museum, 1852 W. 19th St., on Saturday, Oct. 30.

“The event is about coming together as community members to honor all the people that have passed away,” Hernandez said. “The event itself really wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the people that come. … The last two years have been very difficult, and the worst part of the pandemic was that it kept us apart.”

The Xicago event highlighted the beauty of Día de los Muertos, with more than 100 people registered to have their ofrendas on display, decorated with orange cempasuchiles, or marigolds, as live music played and pan de muerto, or Bread of the Dead, was handed out to eventgoers.

“In tradition, it’s believed that the spirits of our loved ones come on Nov. 1 and 2, so it’s a really great opportunity for us to welcome them back and make that connection with them,” Hernandez said.

Inside the museum was the 35th annual Day of the Dead exhibition, dedicated for the people who died from COVID-19 in the last two years, along with an ofrenda for Adam Toledo set up by his family and school teacher.

“It’s a beautiful tradition and absolutely beautiful event,” said Rosalyn Pedraza, a participant in the Xicago event who made an ofrenda dedicated to her mother, who died in June last year, alongside other family members.

With ofrendas, people often display the food and snacks that their relatives loved to eat when they were alive.

“[My mother] loved Snickers, and she loved making tamales, so we made sure we put pictures of her doing that as well, trying to incorporate some of the very traditional elements of the ofrenda, but making it very specific for her in the items that she really enjoyed,” Pedraza said.

Frankie Marron was another participant in the Xicago celebration.

“Día de los Muertos for me means honoring our family members that we lost,” Marron said.

Marron dedicated his ofrenda to his grandmother, Micaela Corrales Ham, who died in January due to COVID-19.

“Putting an ofrenda and putting all the things that they liked, like bread, tortillas, café and flowers — my grandma used to love coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts with a whole bunch of sugar,” Marron said.

The National Museum of Mexican Art’s Day of the Dead exhibition will run until Sunday, Dec. 12.