Families remember loved ones lost to COVID-19 with ofrendas, homemade altars for Day of the Dead: ‘The love never dies, we celebrate their life’

Laura Rodríguez Presa, Chicago Tribune
·7 min read

When she was growing up, as the Day of the Dead approached Sophia Irizarry would help her grandmother set up an altar in their living room to remember and honor their loved ones.

Putting up the ofrenda was a celebration in itself, she recalls. Her grandmother would look at old photos and reminisce about those who had died, telling her tales of the old times and decorating the altar with their favorite dishes, cempasuchil flowers and lots of catrinas — skeletal figures associated with the holiday.

Dia de los Muertos, celebrated in the United States Oct. 31 through Nov. 2, and coinciding with All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day on the Roman Catholic calendar, was her grandmother’s favorite holiday, she said.

Her grandmother, Ramona Fuentes, taught her that “It’s a time full of nostalgia, but at the same time, gratefulness for everything that each person left in the world,” she said.

This year, Irizarry had to set up the ofrenda on her own. Her grandmother unexpectedly died from COVID-19 complications June 10 at age 82. Now her photo adorns the top of the ofrenda, just as photos of many other people who have died from the virus are a part of ofrendas for other Mexican American families this year.

COVID-19 cases in the Latino community continue to grow at a faster rate than any other ethnic group in Illinois, according to the latest data from the Illinois Department of Public Health and the most recent information from the city of Chicago portal.

The De La O family’s ofrenda at their home in West Lawn has three new portraits this year, all of people who died from COVID-19 complications, and the family expects to add pictures of at least 10 more family friends who also died of coronavirus, said Camila Del Carmen De La O.

“It’s a reminder of how fragile life is,” she said. “But it also keeps the hope alive because we will never forget them and maybe we will see them again one day.”

De La O, 16, asked her mother if she could create an elaborate ofrenda to honor her grandmother a few years back after learning the meaning of ofrendas and the significance of Dia de los Muertos.

Ever since, the altar has been growing from a buffet table in the dining room to the living room and foyer. Dozens of catrinas, candles and papel picado, colorful paper flags, surround the photos of their loved ones for almost a month.

The photo of her grandmother, Maria Del Carmen Landin, who died a month before Camila was born in 2014, stands out. Camila never met her, but thanks to the tradition that her grandmother passed down, Camila feels she remembers her.

“They never leave us, they’re always here with us,” said her mother, Rosa Lilia De La O. “I’m proud that she does this because it’s part of our culture, my family, and she keeps them alive.”

Camila De La O felt compelled to grow her ofrenda this year “because we’ve lost so many Latinos to this virus,” she said. Working on the ofrenda has empowered her Mexican American identity after she spent her years up to high school going to a public school in Bucktown where the Latino enrollment was declining year by year.

“We learn to accept death and overcome grief with love,” she said.

Creating an ofrenda is an essential part of the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico and other parts of Latin America. It’s now a growing holiday in the United States after the Disney movie “Coco,” which brought the world of the spirits and the significance of the celebration and its ceremonies to a diverse audience.

For the first time this year, Jennifer Sosa asked her three brothers and her father for help to create an ofrenda for her mother, Sandra Valle, 50, who died May 27 of COVID-19 complications after two weeks in the hospital.

Valle was active in the Pilsen community as an immigrant rights activist and advocated for bilingual classes for students and information for parents at Cooper Elementary, Orozco Language Academy and Benito Juarez high school, said her son Terry Sosa.

The altar in front of their home is adorned with certificates that Valle received throughout her life. The family has asked those who knew Valle to stop by to see it and to drop off any items that remind them of her.

“She wanted a better future, not just for us, but everyone else,” said Terry Sosa, as he carefully placed a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe on a stand near the photo of her mother.

“If it wasn’t for coronavirus, my mother would still be here,” said Jennifer Sosa, while holding her daughter in her arms. “It’s taken so many people from us and I’m afraid that many more will die.”

Valle used to take care of Jennifer Sosa’s 2-year-old while she worked every day. Now Jennifer Sosa hopes to keep her mother’s legacy alive through the ofrenda so that the child can also learn from the “strong and independent mother.”

Valle was a cheerful woman who suddenly and unexpectedly fell ill, Jennifer Sosa said. She loved cumbia dancing and pipian, a green mole sauce dish that Terry Sosa made for her. She also feared getting sick and tried to take all the precautions necessary to avoid getting infected.

“But it happened,” Terry Sosa said.

“We do this today, not only to pay homage to my mother and honor those who have passed, but it is also a reminder for our community to take this (pandemic) seriously and be careful,” he added.

The Rodriguez family’s celebration of the holiday is more heartfelt this year. Patriarch Miguel Rodriguez died of COVID-19 in May at a Hammond hospital, only two weeks after turning 50.

His wife, Laura Melia Rodriguez, baked pan de muerto, the traditional bread for Dia de los Muertos, to decorate the ofrenda she and her children created for him.

Miguel Rodriguez appreciated celebrating the life of those who had died because he was raised a religious man, his wife said. The small but elaborate ofrenda stands in the living room of the family’s ranch house in Chicago Heights, next to the black couch where he used to sit.

The altar celebrating Miguel Rodriguez is adorned with sugar skulls and Mexican marigolds. Monday afternoon, Crystal Rodriguez and other family members gathered to decorate the skulls as her mother baked the bread.

As they deal with their pain, celebrating Day of the Dead brings the family peace and unites them, said Crystal Rodriguez, 26.

Her father was on a ventilator for nearly a month before they had to make the excruciating decision to have him taken off life support when doctors gave them no more hope.

“We all fought and prayed a lot, but it was his time,” Laura Melia Rodriguez said. “This is what he would have wanted from us: to remember him with joy, as he would have remembered others.”

Overcome with emotion, Crystal Rodriguez recalled the day her father was disconnected from the ventilator. It was about the same time that she and her mother recovered from COVID-19. Both suffered from pneumonia while her father was in the hospital. At least 15 other members of their family members were also infected.

On May 31, at 3 p.m., Miguel Rodriguez’s family gathered in the parking lot of the hospital to pay respects to the father of three and say goodbye from afar. At his burial, a mariachi sang his favorite songs.

“It was a big fiesta because the love never dies, we celebrate their life," Crystal Rodriguez said.

Now recovered from the virus, Miguel Rodriguez’s immediate family plans to gather on Sunday to thank God for the strength to deal with the pain but also to pay homage to those who are gone. They have scheduled a Mass and are planning to make his favorite dishes and drinks.

At Camila De La O’s home, the family also plans to have an intimate feast on Monday, before putting away their altar until next year.

larodriguez@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @laura_n_rod

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