Facing higher death tolls, Latinos dedicate this Día de los Muertos to the COVID-19 pandemic
Rossy Mueller Rosales, a longtime Reno resident originally from Nicaragua, said she fondly remembers the last time she saw her older brother — the smell of carne asada and the sound of music filled her Reno backyard as they barbecued and he played the guitar on a warm and sunny May day in 2019.
At that point, she hadn’t seen Otto Mueller for five years and there was no reason to believe that it was the last time she would see him. Or that the following year, the world would be gripped by a deadly pandemic that would claim his life. But just a year later, Mueller Rosales is placing her brother’s photograph on her family’s altar for Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a Latino cultural celebration to honor and remember loved ones who have passed away.
Mueller had promised to visit her again but his June 2020 trip to Reno from Miami was canceled because of the pandemic. He got sick shortly after.
“He had been [in the U.S.] barely a year and a half and he had dreams … he told me about his plans, he wanted to work hard, he wanted to open a business,” Mueller Rosales shared in a Spanish interview with The Nevada Independent. “I talked to him every day and he told me about everything he wanted to do and because of the pandemic and COVID, all of his dreams have been cut off.”
Latinos are overrepresented in infection and mortality rates across the country, an outgrowth of historical health disparities, more limited access to health care and an overrepresentation in frontline and essential jobs. In Nevada alone, Latinos represent 29 percent of the state population yet account for 44 percent of COVID-19 cases, more than any other racial or ethnic group, and 304 deaths. Nationally, Latinos are 18 percent of the population, but represent 21 percent of COVID-related deaths.
Latino communities are shaken by the loss. And the community’s battles don’t end at the daunting mortality rate. In addition to a plethora of disparities, many Latinos face immigration status protection rollbacks and a heavy economic blow sans federal or state aid.
But the spotlight narrows to the sobering death toll this weekend as Latinos across the country and the Americas celebrate Día de los Muertos.
Many of the traditions associated with the celebration originated from pre-Hispanic cultures such as the Aztec and Toltec of Mexico, who believed that the spirits of the dead visited the physical world on Nov. 1. Food and drink was provided for their journeys and cempasuchitl, or marigolds, were laid out to guide the spirits back to them.
Today, Latinos continue to take the opportunity to be closer to their deceased loved ones by assembling an altar dedicated to los muertos and visiting cemeteries to clean their tombstones and leave fresh flowers. Cemeteries in Latin American countries burst with music, flowers, food and people who celebrate the entire night, into the sunrise that ushers in All Saints Day the following day.
While altars are traditionally assembled with photos of the deceased, candles, flowers and occasionally the deceased’s favorite foods and drinks, some younger Latinos in the U.S. have taken a different approach and design altars to highlight social or political issues.
Immigrant advocates dedicated altars to DACA as it hung in the balance after President Donald Trump rescinded the protection for immigrants who were brought to the country as children and before it passed the Supreme Court this summer.
This year, some Latinos are dedicating altars to those who have lost their lives to complications with COVID-19 in the face of the pandemic. The Latino Student Advisory Board at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) adorned an altar dedicated to COVID-19 victims with gloves, face masks, wipes and hand sanitizer and submitted photos for the altar competition organized by the UNR Latino Research Center.
The altar Mueller Rosales’ family assembled for her brother is simple. A photo of Mueller sits on top of a glass table in between two burning candles with a photo of Jesus Christ printed on them. There’s also a statue of the Virgin Mary and a bouquet of orange, yellow and red flowers.
Mueller Rosales’ brother began exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 in July, which saw the greatest surge in infections across the country with a record of more than 77,000 cases in a single day. Miami-Dade County, where Mueller lived at the time, was a hotspot in the U.S., reaching over 100,000 total cases by late July and where more than 3,000 cases were reported in one day.
Despite his symptoms, Mueller refused his family’s pleas to get tested for the virus. He insisted he didn’t have it, that he’d recover. His son, who lived with him, tested positive for the virus first but had recovered.
By the end of July, Mueller had developed pneumonia and was rushed to the hospital where he was hooked up to a ventilator. He spent the next month and a half alone as visitors were barred from his room.
Mueller Rosales was still able to see him via a camera in his hospital room. Every day for half an hour, she and three other family members connected to his camera to encourage him from afar.
“I would say, ‘brother, get out of that bed, love, remember when you would play the guitar and we would sing together,’ and I would even start singing, but my throat would close up and my tears would fall,” she said, her voice softening at the memory.
From the camera view, she could see his nose had turned purple from the pneumonia. Despite his family’s rallying, they never heard him respond. He was always sleeping, sedated.
At the end of every call, her sister said a prayer in the hope that their brother would get out of that hospital bed one day, but after two surgeries to his lungs, doctors informed his family there was nothing more they could do to help him.
More than 1,200 people died on Sept. 11 in the U.S. because of complications with COVID-19, including Mueller. He was 68 years old.
Mueller Rosales said she felt like a piece of her was ripped away.
“I was inconsolable the first days,” she said. “Three days I didn’t go to work, I was grieving and crying. I still can’t believe it, I still feel as if I’m going to see him again. It’s very painful. My heart is shattered.”
A pandemic-altered Día de los Muertos
Día de los Muertos typically helps soothe the heartache of missing loved ones by fostering a sense of community. But this year, Mueller Rosales and other Latinos will forego the usual gatherings as Nevada faces a steady and concerning rise in COVID-19 cases, especially in Washoe County.
Community groups and organizations adapted their events to mitigate the spread of the virus to an already vulnerable population.
“There's also been this isolation of all of us not being able to attend the usual festivities, especially for the Latino community,” said J. Diego Zarazúa, coordinator in education and research and outreach for the Latino Research Center. “We're very community oriented where we love to gather because we feed off that — we're always about the other and how we can help others.”
After 2,000 people attended the Latino Research Center Día de los Muertos event last year to see the array of altars made by students and other community members, the center decided to hold its event virtually this year.
“There was no option to one, limit that to a smaller number this year and really keep everybody socially distant. So of course our community's health came first in line. That was our priority,” Zarazúa said.
In addition to dedicating the 2020 Día de los Muertos program to COVID-19 victims, the research center has also partnered with the Nevada Public Health Training Center in an effort to provide more information and outreach about COVID-19 for Latinos.
While Latinos have plenty of options to celebrate virtually, at least one event will remain in-person. Comunidad Migrante Las Vegas, an immigrant community group, holds an open invitation to view 14 altars assembled on a large plot of land next to a residential area.
In addition to the altar dedicated to those who lost their lives to COVID-19 complications, Comunidad Migrante Las Vegas also assembled altars dedicated to the late Mexican singer and actor Antonio Aguilar and U.S. Army soldier Vanessa Guillen who was killed at a Texas military base by another soldier earlier this year.
“This is really tied to our culture,” Zaida Martinez, event organizer, said in Spanish during an interview with The Nevada Independent. “Día de los Muertos is one of the most important days because it’s when we make contact with people who have passed. For us, it’s a way to tell them, ‘We’re here, and you will always be present to us.’”
The group designed the event to function as a walking “drive-thru” method in order to avoid a large stagnant gathering of people. Attendees can observe the altars as they walk past, but will be encouraged to keep the line moving by event volunteers. Although organizers have asked attendees to bring their face masks, they will also be available at the entrance of the event along with hand sanitizer.
Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office also published a set of guidelines and recommendations for Día de los Muertos celebrations that encourage people to limit gatherings and preferably hold events outdoors rather than indoors, wear face masks, maintain social distance in groups and to stay home if feeling sick.
Mueller Rosales struggles with this point — the observance of COVID-19 guidelines. She said her brother hadn’t grasped the gravity of the pandemic and felt incredulous toward what he heard on the news.
Still, her brother had assured her that he wore masks in public and washed his hands frequently. But she wonders whether everything could’ve been different, if he might have been able to recover with an earlier diagnosis and care.
“The only thing I can keep repeating and insisting on is that we shouldn’t wait for bad things to happen, we shouldn’t wait for someone close to us to pass to become aware of the situation that we’re living through and how it’s affected every single one of us, the whole world,” she said. “It is serious and it’s worth taking precautions, taking care of ourselves and everyone else.”
Mueller Rosales can’t vote in the general election on account of her status as a permanent resident, but she hopes Democratic candidate Joe Biden will move into the office of the president and handle the pandemic distinctly from Trump, who’s been criticized for his early dismissal of the virus and failure to set policies that could have significantly reduced the number of cases in the U.S.
“He was too casual about it,” she said. “He didn’t take precautions when he should have. It was like he didn’t care.”
Mueller Rosales said she wants to focus this weekend on remembering her brother as he was before his illness.
“I wanted to remember him the way he was when he came here — it was almost as if he came to say goodbye, without knowing it,” she said, referring to his previous trip to Reno. “He was healthy.”
Her memories of her brother offer a light amid difficult times.
“He was a joyful man. He really enjoyed playing the guitar, singing and going to the beach. He was active. When I talked to him over the phone, it was like he was standing right in front of me, because he laughed at everything and I would remind him, ‘Remember when we were young and you wanted to show me how to ride a motorcycle and we fell going around the corner?’” Mueller Rosales said, laughing. “We were always talking about memories.”
She’s invited her three daughters over for dinner Monday, to share her brother’s favorite dish, a traditional Nicaraguan meal called baho. It’s made of beef, plantains and yucca wrapped in banana leaves and steamed for a few hours before serving.
They’ll light candles for their muertos — their dead — and say prayers for them.
“It’ll be different because it’s recent in our hearts,” she said.