By Leslie Berestein Rojas
Originally published Nov 1, 2021
This year, as Los Angeles observes El Día de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, there’s no escaping the weight of the pandemic.
Día de Los Muertos, as it is celebrated in Mexico, in parts of Latin America and in L.A., has ancient indigenous roots. It also has strong ties to Catholicism and coincides with the feasts of All Saints and All Souls on Nov. 1 and 2, respectively.
“When the Europeans arrived… that festivity became Christianized,” said Ernesto Vega with the Office of Religious Education for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
While individual parishes have long celebrated Día de Los Muertos, the archdiocese began celebrating it officially in more recent years, after the appointment of Archbishop Jose Gomez, Vega said.
Gomez will preside over the seventh annual archdiocese Día de Los Muertos prayer service on Monday night at Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles. The event will not be public but will be virtual and live streamed, Vega said, owing to the pandemic.
Meanwhile, some local Catholic churches are marking the observance this year with special memorials and services honoring those who died during the pandemic.
A ‘Photo Mural’ And Altar
A large board hangs on the wall at Our Lady of Rosary of Talpa Church in Boyle Heights, not far from the altar.
On it are the photos of several dozen people. Some are older, some are younger. There’s a man standing in a park. Another man in a cowboy hat. A woman wearing pearls. A young man holding a small child.
Church volunteer Elizabeth Gallardo pointed to the photos of two men one recent afternoon.
“They’re brothers,” she said in Spanish. “I knew them. They grew up in this community. They went to the [parochial] school here, when they were children.”
Both died from the coronavirus. So did most of the people in the photos on the church wall.
Our Lady of Talpa, a mostly Latino parish in a community hit hard by the pandemic, lost several parishioners and family members, as have congregations throughout the city.
In the church sanctuary, Gallardo points out more faces on the wall: A man who took part in her wedding. The mother of her sister-in-law, who died in Guadalajara without her daughter being able to see her. A woman who was a co-worker of Gallardo’s husband.
Church pastor Father Jorge Chalaco said all this loss led to the idea of creating what he calls the photo mural.
“These aren’t only people who died of COVID,” he said, “but people who died in this time of COVID.”
Although most represented here contracted the virus, Chalaco said those who did not, along with their families, also suffered because of it. People who became ill were separated from loved ones who couldn’t visit them in the hospital, or travel to see them, or even give them a proper funeral.
Chalaco asked parishioners earlier this year to submit photos for the memorial; Gallardo, who works with catechism students, put it together with her class.
Both said the idea is to help families grieve and heal.
“For a family member, or for me, to see that photo here means a great deal,” Chalaco said, pointing to a couple of photos: One of his uncle, another of his ordination sponsor, both of whom succumbed to the virus. “When I pray, I can see them.”
The photo mural went up in the spring, in the spirit of Easter, Chalaco said. Then, all last month, he collected more photos of loved ones from parishioners, these for a Día de Los Muertos altar.
It’s the first time the church has had one in several years, he said. Unlike the photo mural, the altar isn’t tied specifically to the pandemic — anyone was welcome to bring a photo. But Chalaco felt it was something his parishioners, many of them immigrants from Mexico, needed and wanted.
“This is a very Mexican tradition,” said Chalaco, who is from Ecuador, which has different Day of the Dead traditions, “but it is now ours, the whole community.”
The altar and the photo mural will form part of Our Lady Of Talpa’s Day of the Dead services on Tuesday.
‘A Small Cemetery’ Within A Church
Across town in West L.A., another parish that’s lost members planned to unveil and bless its own pandemic memorial during a special mass Monday night.
The COVID-19 memorial at St. Sebastian Church contains 40 photographs arranged in cut-out circles within a giant metal frame, which will hang indefinitely inside the church.
One recent afternoon, a few parishioners gathered there to look at photocopies of the work in progress.
George Martinez found the photo of his father, Jorge Martinez, a longtime resident of the community who with his wife, Maria, was long involved with the church.
He said his dad didn’t have COVID-19, but suffered a heart attack while being treated in the hospital for other health problems. Because of the pandemic, the family was separated.
“We couldn’t be with him,” said Maria Martinez in Spanish, through tears. “It is the most difficult thing, because we saw him die during a video call.”
The family is still broken up over it. When their pastor proposed the idea of a memorial for the Day of the Dead, George Martinez sent in his dad’s photo.
“I think just taking this day of Día de Los Muertos to really reflect on his life, the legacy he left behind, is something that we can really cherish,” George Martinez said.
St. Sebastian is a unique parish: Among its members are families like the Martinezes, who have roots in Mexico, along with many French immigrants and other French speakers. The pastor, Father German Sanchez, is from Colombia, but he lived in France for several years and speaks the language. Masses are offered in English, Spanish, and French.
The COVID-19 memorial was constructed by one of the parishioners, Jean-Christophe Poulain, who worked with Sanchez to design it.
Poulain understands his fellow parishioners’ grief: His mother died in France during the pandemic, of other causes — and he couldn’t travel there to bury her.
“I was stuck here,” Poulain said. “It was so sad. I saw the video of the funeral and it was just my brothers and sisters. It was a very big cathedral, with only three people, and my mom in the little coffin. It was super, super sad.”
Father Sanchez comforted both families — and many others in his parish. Sometimes he did last rites over Zoom. Unable to hold funerals in the church, he accompanied them to burials.
“Many times, we could not do anything more than a blessing, and it was only eight or ten of us,” he said. “It was something very difficult for the families, and for me, too.”
That’s why Sanchez wanted to create a memorial that people can visit often, to have their own place to grieve and reflect. The plan is to have it up for at least a year, maybe longer.
“Like a small cemetery within our church,” Sanchez said, “like a small remembrance in our church of all the suffering that these families endured during this time… like a small medicine to calm the deep pain of these families.”
But it is a memorial to something more: to the lives that the people who are represented in it lived, and to love and family bonds, all things that are celebrated during Día de Los Muertos, when the souls of lost loved ones are welcomed back to visit.
Sanchez felt the holiday was the perfect time to bless the memorial.
“It’s a way of saying they did not disappear,” he said. “That they are in another life, that they are still living.”
This report is reprinted with permission from Southern California Public Radio. © 2021 Southern California Public Radio. All rights reserved.
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