The Dia de Los Muertos altar at the Utah State Capitol was decorated with candles, fruit, sugar skulls and bright orange and purple flowers and yarn pom-poms, as vivid as the fall leaves outside. The memorial also featured poignant photographs of loved ones to honor the memories of the more than 3,200 Utahns who died in the past year due to COVID-19.
The altar — created by Rocio Mejia, of Una Mano Amiga, and her daughter, Marla Love, of the children’s art studio Art First Arte Primero — formed the backdrop for a Day of the Dead remembrance event on Nov. 1.
The event was a collaboration of the Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs and the Utah Department of Health, drawing upon Day of the Dead traditions rooted in Latin American countries. It offered a “perfect opportunity to go beyond the numbers” and remember the smiles, laughter and favorite foods of loved ones, said Edwin Espinal, a spokesperson for the Utah Department of Health, who helped plan the remembrance.
“We want to establish that idea that we’re better together — and COVID-19 is going to take that collective action from everyone to make sure that we move past this,” said Claudia Loayza, communications coordinator for the state’s multicultural division.
At the event, leaders of Utah’s Hispanic/Latino, American Indian, Pacific Islander, Asian, and Black/African American communities celebrated memories of loved ones. Nubia Peña, director of the multicultural division and senior advisor on equity and opportunity to Gov. Spencer J. Cox, presented his resolution supporting the event, while Loayza presented the text in Spanish.
Panelists underscored the “devastating impact” of the pandemic among Utah’s racial and ethnic minorities, whose losses comprise some 23 percent of the state’s total pandemic deaths.
Jake Fitisemanu, of the Utah Health Department’s Pacific Islander Health Coalition, displayed a photo collage in memory of Margarita Satini, a beloved community advocate, who died in October 2020 of complications of COVID-19. The pandemic isn’t over, Fitisemanu said, as Utahns are still being hospitalized and dying of the virus.
Dustin Jansen, director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, laid a tobacco prayer tie on the altar, in recognition of the beginning of Native American Heritage Month.
In remembering those who are continuing their journey, Jansen said they will be honored through kindness. “Those who have made the journey are never too far away,” he said.