Celebrate Community: A public ofrenda honors those lost to COVID-19

UPDATE: Due to weather, the November 1 date has been cancelled. The November 2 date will move forward as planned.

In Mexico, on the first two days of November, Día de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is celebrated. On this holiday, the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is lifted, and the two can come together once more. Or, as Marta V. Martinez, executive director of Rhode Island Latino Arts (RILA) says, “This is a time when the loved ones who have passed-on return symbolically to appreciate life’s pleasures, such as eating, drinking and reuniting with their families here on earth.”

For the past four years, RILA has held a community ofrenda or altar, one of the staples of this holiday. These ofrenda are made in remembrance of the deceased and often contain photos of the deceased and trinkets they owned. This year, RILA, the Providence Public Library (PPL), and Trinity Rep are uniting to hold the ofrenda in honor of those who have lost their lives to COVID-19. 

Christina Bevilacqua, program and exhibitions director of Providence Public Library, explained that she, Marta and Michelle Cruz, director of community engagement at Trinity Rep, have met weekly for some time, but during the pandemic their conversations shifted. “We’ve talked a lot at our meetings about the losses that this year has brought, and the sense of uncertainty ahead. The pandemic has taken such a toll on lives and livelihoods, and while each of our organizations has been affected in a different way, we’re all experiencing our own losses along with the larger sense of communal loss.”  

Marta V. Martinez

Rhode Island has lost more than 1,100 lives to the virus. Marta said, “The Latino community has been disproportionately hit by the virus; they tend to have a higher prevalence of pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes and heart problems, that can make people more vulnerable to the coronavirus. We also are less likely to have health insurance than the general population.” According to the CDC, members of the Latinx community are 2.8 times more likely to catch the virus, 4.6 times more likely to require hospitalization and 1.1 times more likely to die. Marta has lost two people to COVID-19. 

Having seen the community torn apart by the virus, Marta says, “It makes me angry to hear government officials [the President] dismiss the virus as ‘no big deal’ because after contracting the coronavirus, he was able to recover quickly, but only because he has access to daily testing and the best medical care. It’s shameful that he travels around the country seeking votes, holding rallies where there is no social distancing or mask-wearing and spreading false information.”

This year’s ofrenda is not limited to one race or culture. Anyone who has lost someone to COVID-19 is welcome to participate by bringing a digital photo of their lost loved one, another memory or image of the person, such as a piece of their favorite food, and a short written memory about the person to the steps of the Providence Public Library on November 1 or 2 at 5pm. Participants will come together, talk about their experiences, remember their loved ones and celebrate the lives that were lost. Marta paints a picture of the event: “A sea of candles outlining the library steps and stone wall, soft drumming, stories by Valerie Tutson of Black Storytellers and Sussy Santana of RILA on Monday, and hopefully, many small altars set up by the community.” 

Cruz explains the impetus behind this event by speaking about the beginning of the pandemic “…there were no gatherings, no way to truly come together to mourn or celebrate the lives of those lost. Oftentimes, funerals tend to be where families see each other the most and there was a huge sense of loss of connection on so many levels.” 

This ofrenda will celebrate the lives that have been lost, but also bring together a community that’s still grieving, not only for their loved ones, but because of the new reality this deadly virus makes us face. 

The ofrenda will be held November 1 and 2, and information can be found at RILA.org/ DiaDeLosMuertosRI.html. All are welcome — mourners and non-mourners alike, with social distancing and masks required.