This article is also available in Spanish on the website of our our sister publication, El Perico
The United States has reached a somber juncture in the coronavirus pandemic — about 1 in 500 U.S. residents have died from COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University.
That’s more than 675,000 lives lost. As of this writing, 785 of those who have passed were Douglas County residents. 785 individuals whose hands likely couldn’t be held by loved ones in their final hours, whose family, friends and community’s attempts to honor them have largely had to be masked, socially distanced or virtual.
The numbers can feel numbing, unreal to many.
But even submerged in a pandemic that holds so much loss, Linda García-Perez and Jose García continue to believe death is really about life.
“We are a community who is hurting right now,” said García-Perez, who co-founded the Mexican American Historical Society of the Midlands with her husband, García.
For about 30 years the duo has uplifted the indigenous Mexican tradition of Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, through exhibits and events for the greater Omaha community to celebrate — and they feel the celebration’s more important now than ever.
“Death has a different appearance for indigenous people from Mexico,” García said. The rituals are rooted in belief of the three deaths: the first when you die, the second when no one can see your body, and the third when no one says your name and you are no longer remembered.
Today, the two-day holiday is traditionally observed Nov. 1 and Nov. 2 and is celebrated throughout Mexico, other parts of Latin America and in Latino communities throughout the U.S. Favorite foods and items are placed at the graveside, or built into ofrendas, or offerings, as storytelling tools to help honor and remember those who’ve passed.
“Grief isn’t meant to last a lifetime,” García said. “Día de los Muertos — the way we practice it in the contemporary age — is meant to replace the grief with a remembrance that has life in it.”
Over the years, García and García-Perez have facilitated dozens of public ofrenda installations at the Joslyn Art Museum, Apollon Art Space, St. Cecilia Cathedral, Metropolitan Community College and other spaces throughout the city. Whether the installation is themed to honor lost cultural icons or personal loved ones, each exhibit is built in collaboration with artists and community members of all cultures in the couple’s efforts to share the healing experience of building an ofrenda.
The makings of an ofrenda are intimately personal objects — people bring pictures of their loved ones, poems written in their honor, their favorite foods or items they once held near. Often these items are already displayed in homes and actively spark that memory of a loved one without intention, García-Perez said.
“We have our own ofrendas, and we don’t even know it,” she said.
The couple has witnessed the understanding and appreciation of the celebration transform in the community over time. But work to educate and share their culture started small.
While studying art at the College of St. Mary’s in the late 60’s, García-Perez began student-teaching in Brother William Woeger’s all-boys class at a local grade school. Brother Woeger saw how she took care to introduce the students to Hispanic and Latino arts, regardless of their identity.
“That connection was only the beginning,” said Brother Woeger, who is the founder of the St. Cecilia Cathedral Arts Project, an organization that aims to instill the arts within the parish in a way that uplifts and challenges the human spirit. Through García-Perez, he got to know García and recognized how deeply passionate the pair were about their desire to share their heritage.
“You see how steeped they are in the stories of their ancestors, and how they honor that and uphold that not just for their family but for others,” he said. “There’s nothing commercial about it at all, it’s all homegrown.”
After years of Día de los Muertos events throughout the community, the couple hosted an ofrenda installation in St. Cecilia Cathedral and its adjacent chapel for the first time in 2015. Despite South Omaha’s rich Mexican-American history and a growing Hispanic/Latino population, hosting the celebration in a non-Hispanic church with a predominantly white congregation was new territory.
García-Perez recalls Boy and Girl Scout troops flying banners denouncing “devil worshipping,” a misconception of the celebration of life that is Día de los Muertos.
“For some, it was a complete revelation; for others, they didn’t want to go through the work of understanding it,” Brother William said. “The best thing about it is it got people talking.”
Since then, García and García-Perez have seen growth in the understanding of Day of the Dead in non-Hispanic communities in Omaha. Brother Woeger has seen that understanding grow, too.
“The community of the living and the community of the dead are one community,” Brother Woeger said. “That’s why it’s such a healthy thing to tell stories, to develop a consciousness that there is a relationship with those who died that has not been broken.”
García-Perez said ofrendas are needed now more than ever.
“It gives permission to talk about all the death around this; this is a release in a way,” she said.
This year, García and García-Perez plan to continue their efforts to share the healing power of the holiday. They will facilitate two installations of community ofrendas.
One ofrenda will be at Boys Town and another at St. Cecilia Cathedral. While information regarding the events is forthcoming and will be updated online, the St. Cecilia ofrenda will present an opportunity for community members to place copies of photographs, personal items and more in memory of the departed.
Regardless of your culture or religion, García thinks it’s our human obligation to break from the status quo of putting a timeline on a loved one’s life and death that ends with a person’s funeral or burial.
“We still mourn, we still grieve, we still have our losses, and we need to honor that,”
he said. “It is you that controls this memory, not a funeral parlor and a closed casket. It is your memory, it is your history, and you write it. So how do you write it? You do an ofrenda.”