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LA's Latinos Mark El Día De Los Muertos In 'A Nightmare Year' Of Loss

Altarista Ofelia Esparza says it's been "a nightmare year" of loss for her family. (Beau Ryan)
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By Mandalit Del Barco/NPR

Just like everything else this year, Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is different. One commemoration in East Los Angeles included a socially distanced car parade. Decked-out lowriders cruised down Whittier Boulevard in a caravan, past Evergreen Cemetery, all the way to Self Help Graphics & Artin Boyle Heights. The community art center had to cancel its annual celebration because of the pandemic, but artists are still showing the altars they built for the dead here in a virtual exhibition.

A participant drives in the Día de los Muertos car parade in East Los Angeles on Sunday. (Mandalit del Barco/NPR)

Consuelo Flores created one ofrenda with photos of Black and Latino victims of COVID-19. "They have the most fatalities, the most exposure and therefore they bring the exposure of the virus home to their families," she says. She points to one picture of a five-year-old girl. "Both of her parents worked at hospitals caring for victims of COVID, and they brought that home and she died," Flores says.

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Flores calls her ofrenda "The Roots of our Resistance." From the ceiling, she hung upside-down tree branches to look like roots. Attached to them are yellow and red marigolds that resemble 3D models of the coronavirus. And pinned to the flowers are photos of first responders who died of the disease.

"Those who cannot self isolate, like these essential workers, they are the backbone of our society," says Flores.

To make the point, she's strung together small spinal columns made of coyote bones. They're also attached to the roots. And uneven strings of flowers also hang down, Flores says, because the world is not balanced now.

Ofelia Esparza's community altar at Grand Park in Los Angeles. Above, framed photographs of loved ones lost. (Beau Ryan)

She says the altar she made this year hits close to home because her husband almost died from the SARS coronavirus last year. "He was in intensive care and it was incredibly, extraordinarily scary because there's nothing you can do," she says. "It is really the strength of the virus versus the strength of the body."

Flores has another altar at the outdoor Día de los Muertos commemoration open to the public in downtown LA.

Across from City Hall, at Grand Park, Ofelia Esparza and her family also set up a 20-foot-wide, three-level ofrenda for the community. They blessed it with an eagle feather, they burned sage and said aloud the names of people who died this year. The altar is decorated with real and handmade paper marigolds, embroidered lace, tapestries and framed photographs of those who have died, including Esparza's beloved family members.

"I just lost a sister and a brother and his wife, one of my nephews and a brother in law," recalls Esparza. "It's a nightmare year."

Esparza says COVID-19 took her nephew quickly at the hospital in just two weeks. And safety precautions at nursing homes meant her sister, brother and his wife spent their final days isolated and alone. "They died without any family member," says Esparza. "That's unnatural for us."

Ofelia Esparza has lived in East LA, all of her 89 years. The former elementary school teacher is a well known altarista, creating Day of the Dead altars with her children and grandchildren. She says it's one of the traditions her mother brought when she immigrated from Guanajuato, Mexico. Esparza says they always leave mementos at the ofrendas, and share family stories so the memories live on.

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"You know, just as long as we remember them and we still talk about them, they're still part of our life. They become part of that pantheon of ancestors that I pray to, like our guardian angels," she says. "So it's for everyone to contemplate and to remember how our life is so brief. Make it a beautiful life as much as we can, to love and to respect one another."

Esparza says that Día de los Muertos message is especially poignant this year.

Nina Gregory edited this story.