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Utah's Dia de los Muertos memorial honors, remembers COVID-19 deaths

Marco Munoz walks to his car after a remembrance event in honor of Día de los Muertos at the Capitol in Salt Lake City.
Marco Munoz walks to his car after a remembrance event in honor of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in the Hall of Governors at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 1, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Dia de los Muertos meant something different to many in Utah who celebrated the Day of the Dead on Monday, as they remembered the more than 3,000 Utahns who have died from COVID-19 and the drastic effects the virus has had on minority populations here.

The holiday, which first originated in Mexico, is now celebrated throughout the world from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2 in recognition and celebration of life and death.

It's "a perfect opportunity to go beyond the numbers and remember family, friends, neighbors and loved ones who have succumbed to COVID-19," said Edwin Espinel, a health system specialist with the Utah Department of Health.

A large portion of Utah's COVID-19 deaths have been people from racial and ethnic minority communities in the state, which as a whole represent about 23% of the total deaths in the state since the pandemic began.

"So many families know the pain of losing someone," said Marla Love, director of children's studio Art First ArtePrimero. "This is not just a Mexican holiday. It's a holiday to remember our ancestors and to honor those who have passed away."

A memorial display at the Hall of Governors in the Utah Capitol recognized the collective loss Utahns have felt across communities and offered an opportunity to honor those lost. Speakers at an event Monday laid offerings of remembrance representing their communities.

Jake Fitisemanu, of the health department's Utah Pacific Islander Health Coalition, was overcome with emotion as he laid a portrait of Margarita Satini on the altar. Satini was the founder of the Utah Pacific Islander Civic Engagement Coalition and a fierce advocate for the community. She died of COVID-19 complications in October 2020.

Jake Fitisemanu, chairman of the Utah Pacific Health Coalition, holds a photo of Margarita Satini, the late chairwoman of the Pacific Islander COVID-19 task force, during a remembrance event in honor of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in the Hall of Governors at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday. Fitisemanu placed the photo among the others on display during the event hosted by the Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs and the Utah Department of Health.
Jake Fitisemanu, chairman of the Utah Pacific Islander Health Coalition, holds a photo of Margarita Satini, the late chairwoman of the Pacific Islander COVID-19 task force, during a remembrance event in honor of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in the Hall of Governors at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday. Fitisemanu placed the photo among the others on display during the event hosted by the Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs and the Utah Department of Health.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The portrait of Satini was comprised of photos of and paid tribute to the 95 Pacific Islanders in Utah who have died due to COVID-19.

"We offer a somber reminder that people are still being hospitalized and are still dying of COVD-19," Fitisemanu said.

In recognition of Native American Heritage Month, which began Monday, and in tribute to those who've died, Utah Division of Indian Affairs Director Dustin Jansen laid a tobacco prayer tie on the altar.

"As we remember those who have passed on and are continuing their journey, whether they have died from COVID or other things related, my prayer is that we remember them in a good way. That we honor them through love. That we honor them by making the best choices we can during this pandemic to ensure our loved ones — both young and old — will be as safe as possible," Jansen said.

And while the event was intended as a commemoration and a celebration of life, it also served as a reminder of the ongoing pandemic.

"We want to commemorate with those whose lives are forever changed, that have suffered the tremendous loss of losing their loved one," Espinel said. "The best way we can honor the ones that have been lost is working hard every day to bring this pandemic to an end."