Dia de Muertos

Lizette Villegas performs a blessing on an Ofrenda for those who died of COVID-19, as part of Día de Muertos on Monday at USU.

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Though Utah State University’s Latinx Creative Society did not hold its annual Day of the Dead procession on Monday, the club’s founders, alumni and community members joined together to dedicate an altar, or “ofrenda,” outside of the Taggart Student Center.

“Our big focus today are those that we have lost to COVID,” said Lizette Villegas, with The Family Place, at the ofrenda’s dedication at noon. “(We do) this in hopes that all of our loved ones are here with us to celebrate and rejoice the time that they did spend with us.”

Creative Society cofounder Crescencio López-González, a Latinx associate professor at USU, said while every year has a focus, this year’s theme was obvious, as more than 1.2 million people have died worldwide — more than 230,000 in the United States alone — due to the novel coronavirus.

The altar featured 30 photos of individuals who died from COVID-19 complications, such as locals Kelly Rindlisbacher, Tomas Alejandro Lopez Castañon, former USU professor L. Douglas James and “Baby Alan” — one of the earliest, and the youngest, to date, of the deaths in the valley, whose family wished to remain anonymous.

“A lot of people who died didn’t have the opportunity to say goodbye,” López-González said. “This is a way to say ‘It’s OK to come back.’”

He said grief and shame surrounding the virus accompany loss for most loved ones.

“Maybe they don’t know who brought the COVID to the house, maybe they’re feeling guilty they couldn’t do more,” he said. “The more I looked into their stories, the more sad I became. I knew that we needed to come together to show support.”

Out of the 614 COVID-19 deaths in Utah, 125 were Latinx or Hispanic, making about 20% of the COVID deaths in the state despite only making up 14% of the population.

Latinx have the third-highest COVID-19 mortality rate in Utah. Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders and Native Americans are the ethnicities with the first and second highest mortality rates, respectively.

Even those who didn’t lose a loved one to the virus appreciated the chance to gather as a community and celebrate the memories of loved ones, such as Maria Ellen Huebner, who wears pictures of her father and brother to celebrate Día de los Muertos.

“It’s a tradition in the Mexican culture that it has everything to do with life and death, and this is life-and-death matters right now,” she said.

Ivan Cardona is originally from Puerto Rico, where the Day of the Dead is not celebrated as frequently, but he loves the ability to get together and reminisce.

“It’s fun, and it’s more like remembering and getting in touch with ancestors you may not have known,” Cardona said. “I’m not a religious person, but to me, it’s just remembering and honoring. We’re all gonna die sometime. What’s left is what you did and how people remember you.”

Villegas said it also inspires her to be a better person.

“I want to be remembered in a beautiful way,” she added. “I want to have those stories be told to my grandkids, and I can look forward to hearing those when I visit my grandkids.”

The need to join together as a community was a main factor in the event’s creation, according to Villegas and Luz Maria Carreno.

“It’s a crazy year, but one of the purposes of Día de los Muertos is to keep the spirit of those who have passed away alive and be conscious of our community members who have passed away,” Carreno told The Herald Journal.

For others, it’s a way to connect with a culture that, through emigration, may otherwise be lost.

“My parents were farmworkers,” said Christina Ledesma. “They were always working, so I grew up not knowing culture. … As second-generation children, we lose our heritage.”

Ledesma and her family moved to Tucson, Arizona, where they were able to make friends with other immigrants and participate in the eclectic and rich Southwest experience.

“The whole community comes together,” she said. “It was there we rediscovered who we are and our celebrations and our traditions.”

Ledesma and López-González, her husband, typically lead the procession with their children to ensure the traditions continue to the next generation.

Villegas said though her ultimate goal is community, teaching her children their culture and history is the next most important step.

“My children may never be in Mexico for Day of the Dead,” she said. “I’ve never even been to Mexico for Day of the Dead.”

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