Remember COVID toll on Day of the Dead

Día de los Muertos, a time to honor departed loved ones, is extra relevant in 2021.

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The lobby of Chicago’s City Hall features an ofendra, or altar to departed loved ones, set up to celebrate Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a holiday that originated in Mexico and begins Monday.

The lobby of Chicago’s City Hall features an ofendra, or altar to departed loved ones, set up to celebrate Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a holiday that originated in Mexico and begins Monday.

Photo by Neil Steinberg

On Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, the barrier between the world of the living and the world of those who have left it is thought to be thinner than usual. On the holiday, which begins Monday, we who still savor the frequent joys of life, for the moment, can reach across the chasm to embrace our deceased loved ones, at least in memory.

Originated in Mexico, a blend of Spanish and Aztec cultures, at first in the United States it was glimpsed as a kind of exotic after-echo of Halloween, the way we vaguely notice that Boxing Day follows Christmas in England, without worrying about details.

But as the influence of Hispanic culture in the United States grows, despite furious attempts to thwart it, the holiday is being more generally felt. This year the city set up an ofrenda, an altar to the dead, in the middle of the lobby at City Hall, complete with food offerings, photos of the departed and friendly calaveras, or skulls, that represent the holiday the way decorated eggs embody Easter.

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If Halloween is a ritualistic thumbing of society’s nose at death, transforming morbidity into a happy occasion for children to dress as monsters and collect candy, the Day of the Dead is a more family-oriented plunge into all that is good in life — food, drink, music, flowers, color, companionship — and the warm presence of those we loved, undiluted by the unfortunate detail that they are no longer here. Families visit graves, create shrines, throw parties.

Two men dressed as female Day of the Dead skeletons.

Two servers at Canton Regio, 1510 W. 18th Street, dressed as calacas — skeletons — get a jump Saturday on celebrating Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, outside the Mexican restaurant in Pilsen. The holiday begins Monday.

Photograph by Caren Jeskey

Two reasons why this is a bigger deal this year. First, the ever growing Hispanic presence — in the 2020 Census, Chicago’s growing Latino population nosed ahead of its shrinking Black population for the first time. Chicago is now 31.4% white, 29.9% Latino, 28.7% Black and 6.9% Asian, according to the latest census.

Not that political power has followed. Chicago still has 18 black majority wards and only 13 Latino wards. Though that is about to change, after the requisite political free-for-all.

The second reason Day of the Dead is more important this year: the million plus people, 743,000 in the United States and 288,000 in Mexico, who died of COVID-19 over the past 22 months.

In this country, where ignoring deaths from COVID has become a political act, Día de los Muertos is an appeal to our better natures, an invitation to remember, to summon the vanished and honor their lives.

I’m not alone in this idea. The National Museum of Mexican Art, 1852 W. 19th St., has dedicated its current exhibit, “A Time to Grieve and Remember,” to the plague.

“During the pandemic, many of us were heartbroken to be unable to spend time with our loved ones,” the museum declares on its web site. “As we are now able to gather, we join together to grieve and remember the ones we lost during these two years. The collective act of mourning is a fundamental aspect of annual Day of the Dead commemorations and offers a healing way to acknowledge, accept and bear the inevitable.”

Myself, I’m heading to Taco Diablo in Evanston on Monday to have lunch with a pal. Taco Diablo has a cheery Día de los Muertos vibe year round, with its skulls and devils. Which is fitting. Because the dead are always with us, whether we remember them or not. Their hard work is why we aren’t naked apes gobbling berries and fleeing tigers.

At the very least, let’s not forget the debt we owe them. At the very least, let’s not push aside the good things they left for us: food, music, art, medicine. Enjoy sweet life while you have it. And certainly don’t ignore the perils that would rob you of life prematurely.

There is an old Mexican saying, “Ahogado el niño, tapando el pozo,” which literally means, “After the child drowns, they plug the well.” Don’t wait to be on a ventilator before you take COVID seriously.

It hasn’t gone away, and our nation will without any doubt reach its millionth victim in early 2022. The only thing worse than 1 million of our fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters dying of a preventable disease is for us to sit on our hands and do nothing to save ourselves. We will join them too soon as it is.

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