CHICAGO — A bouquet and votive candles with an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe sit near the wedding portrait of Gardenia Rangel’s parents on a small table in the living room of their old home.
The electric candles haven’t been turned off since her mother and father both died of COVID-19 last February. Every so often, Rangel plays mariachi music to remember them.
They loved Mexican music, their daughter said.
“I think about them every single day,” Rangel said. “But I never want to stop missing them because they say that people only die the day you forget them.”
Rangel wants to find a way to celebrate her parents’ life this upcoming Day of The Dead by creating an ofrenda — an altar to honor the deceased — and planning a family gathering to share their legacy of love.
Hundreds of other Chicagoans lost to the coronavirus are also being remembered as part of Day of The Dead ofrendas throughout the region. Some families are setting up an altar for the first time, while others continue the Mexican tradition that is no longer solely folkloric, given the many deaths related to COVID-19.
“This past year, thousands of people shared the pain of suddenly losing a loved one and they have realized — despite all of our differences — that Día de los Muertos is meant to bring some sort of comfort; to remember those who are gone and celebrate the time they spent with us and cherish the moments we spent together,” said Cesáreo Moreno, the visual arts director of the National Museum of Mexican Art.
Moreno curated a special exhibit at the museum to pay tribute to those who died from COVID-19 in Mexico and the United States with ofrendas and other art installations.
According to tradition, it is believed that on the Day of the Dead, Nov. 2, families welcome back the souls of their deceased relatives to spend time with their loved ones, eat their favorite food, and have a celebration of life.
The exhibit “Día de Muertos — A Time to Grieve & Remember” (through Dec. 12) marks the 35th annual Day of the Dead exhibition at the museum. This year it features a COVID Memorial ofrenda that has more than 200 photos of people who died from the virus and have a connection to Chicago or the museum.
There’s the photo of Jesus Gomez’s father, who died in Mexico from COVID-19 complications and was buried the same day Gomez got his first dose of vaccine in Evanston.
“He almost made it,” Gomez said.
The photo of Sandra Valle, an immigrant rights activist from the Pilsen neighborhood, also adorns the ofrenda. Last year, Valle’s children celebrated the holiday for the first time to honor their mother but also to help them heal from the pain of losing her, said her daughter Jennifer Sosa.
Alejandro García Nelo, the creator of the ofrenda at the museum, placed a large heart that resembles a wooden milagro, or miracle — a religious item used for prayers — at the center to acknowledge the heartbreak that the pandemic has caused across the world, he said.
“Many families couldn’t hug their loved ones goodbye before they died; many more couldn’t even have a ceremony or ritual to bury them, so they have been living heartbroken and in a lot of pain, unable to get closure,” García Nelo said.
But the heart also signifies that despite the pain, “their loved ones will always be a part of us all,” he added.
García Nelo, an artist from Mexico, has collaborated with the Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago for more than 20 years. Throughout his career, he has specialized in Día de los Muertos installations that showcase how the holiday is celebrated in different regions of Mexico.
Though Day of the Dead has been vastly recognized in the United States, he agrees with Moreno that its significance has changed over the past decade as people now recognize it beyond just an art installation.
“They’re no longer just art pieces, colorful altars that you look at; people now understand that they symbolize real people,” Moreno said.
At El Trebol Liquors and Bar, one of the oldest bars in Pilsen that has mainly served Mexican immigrants for the last four decades, a small ofrenda with photos of late clients adorns the bar.
There are papel picado — tissue paper cut with elaborate designs — and sugar skulls next to the photos, along with the former patrons’ favorite beers.
Nearby, Isabel Hernandez of Pilsen turned her pandemic grief into the strength to build a 15-foot ofrenda to honor her neighbors’ loved ones. The seven-tier altar in her yard is adorned by more than 250 photos of people from her community who lost their lives.
The top tier includes the photos of her grandparents, whom she lost several years ago, and the photos of her brother and a family friend who died of COVID-19.
Last year she set out to build an altar to help the community pay tribute to those who were dying of COVID-19, since the Day of the Dead celebrations had been canceled because of the pandemic, she said.
This year, Hernandez, who has lived in the area for more than 40 years, gathered photos from her neighbors and built the massive altar on her own over three weeks.
“Día de los Muertos teaches us to turn the pain, the grieving, into love and appreciation for the time we had those people in our lives, in our community,” Hernandez said.
Gardenia Rangel says she hopes that the Day of the Dead celebrations and rituals help her to accept her parents’ deaths.
She couldn’t say goodbye to her parents since they got infected on their way home from their native town in Mexico.
“They never got home,” she said,
Her only comfort is knowing that they are together and “will love each other forever wherever they are.”
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