‘We’ve always been surplus’: Individual tragedy and collective trauma from COVID
Survivors organize toward the first statewide memorial for COVID in the U.S.
When the COVID pandemic started, Luis Peña had a lot of time to mourn and reflect on rituals and practices his people have practiced for centuries. “Everything came to a standstill, and these customs around birth and death, none of that happened in that time,” he said. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)
The last meeting of the Ojo Caliente area chapter of the penitential confraternity known as La Fraternidad Piadosa de Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno was Friday March 13, 2020, three weeks into Lent.
It was also the same day the United States first declared the public health emergency for COVID-19.
Luis Peña showed up to his morada, an informal religious building, in a mask and gloves. His hermanos, laughing at him, told him they were not sick.
“No, I’m doing this for you,” he told them. His father decided the morada should hold off on meeting “until this thing blows over,” with no idea how long it would last.
They talked over the phone, and participated in rosaries with hermanos from other moradas over Zoom, just to keep things going, Peña said. This gave him a lot of time to mourn and reflect on rituals and practices his people have practiced for centuries.
“Everything came to a standstill, and these customs around birth and death, none of that happened in that time,” he said.
That disruption is part of what is driving a movement in New Mexico today to establish the first statewide memorial for people who have died from COVID.
Eleanor Bravo and Janeth Nuñez del Prado, members of the New Mexico chapter of Marked by COVID, are leading a group of New Mexicans in lobbying local, state and federal policymakers to support the memorial.
They’ve already got formal recognition from the Village of Corrales and the Sandoval County Commission, and an acre of public trust land from State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard.
In January, the Albuquerque City Council and the Bernalillo County Commission are expected to vote on identical resolutions, sponsors Tammy Fiebelkorn and Steven Michael Quezada said.
At the same time, the group will be lobbying at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe to raise $2 million to make the memorial permanent. Sen. Harold Pope (D-Albuquerque) will introduce a Senate Joint Memorial expressing support for the COVID memorial.
For every person who has died of COVID, there are, on average, nine bereaved family members left behind. But those studies aren’t accurate for New Mexico, Nuñez del Prado said, because of New Mexicans’ extended networks of kinship and care.
New Mexico is leading the charge on memorialization of COVID losses, she said, having gotten the furthest along in the process up to this point.
“The people that are COVID-bereaved in New Mexico, we could fill a football stadium, easily, but where is the recognition?” she asked.
Still trying to find a center of gravity
Some moradas continued to meet, even knowing the risk, and some spread the virus while in ceremony, Peña said.
It is frustrating, he said, because he and these elders could see the importance of interrupting these traditions for the sake of the health and well-being of each other and their families, but they’re living in an era “where a lot of people just don’t care no more.”
“They think that any sort of interruption to their personal freedom is an attack on their God-given rights,” he said. “Like bro, we stopped a tradition that we’ve done the same way for well over 100 years, and you can’t even stop crying about not being able to go to a concert for a year.”
Even into 2022, various deaths of hermanos’ loved ones have disrupted their meetings, Peña said.
“It wasn’t due to COVID, but it was disruptive nonetheless because we never found our center of gravity,” he said. “We’re still trying to find it.”
Losing the family comedian
Angelina “Angie” Tena worked at El Mirador caring for elderly people and folks with disabilities, after working at the Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs and Resort for decades.
Tena was dedicated to her family, her children and grandchildren. She liked to get together with her siblings and have dinner at her aunt’s house.
She liked to dance Northern New Mexican Norteño style, to local music like Al Hurricane and The Blue Ventures, and was the comedian of the family, Peña said.
Someone introduced COVID during a family gathering on Christmas 2020, and his aunt Angelina Tena caught it there. She didn’t really know how sick she was, went to a New Year’s Eve party, and ended up passing the virus on to a whole bunch of other people, Peña said.
For Servilleta Plaza, a town of about 32 people, roughly half of the community had COVID just over those two gatherings, he said, so they couldn’t go to his aunt’s rosary. He and his father, in their roles as hermanos, were not able to take the role in organizing the rosary and being able to create space for the grieving for her.
Nuñez del Prado’s father Hugo lived in Bolivia and didn’t have access to the vaccine to protect against COVID-19.
COVID guilt is real, she said, around how that person died, how you could have prevented it, and not being able to publicly mourn them. She feels guilty for her country not providing her father access to the vaccine, and she feels like she failed him by not being able to go to his funeral.
“These people were gone 10 years before their time,” she said. “Their life was not over. They weren’t ready. Our families weren’t ready.”
Peña felt guilt for not going to his aunt’s services and not being able to pay his final respects in a public setting.
The day after her funeral, he had a small private gathering with his parents, wife, children, and sisters around the gravesite at the community burial plot in their town.
Most of the people buried there, he said, predate the existence of the United States. So do their ties to the area.
‘We’ve always been surplus’
In their book on the political economy of health titled “Health Communism,” Beatrice Adler-Bolton and Artie Vierkant write that the vulnerability of surplus populations is not inherent to their existence, but is instead constructed by the operations of the capitalist state.
“The precarity of the surplus population is made through what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls ‘organized abandonment,’ the deliberate manipulation and disproportionate dispossession of resources from Black, Brown, Indigenous, disabled, and poor communities, rendering them more vulnerable to adverse health,” they wrote.
Peña and his father are the last two remaining members of their hermandad. Their ancestors from Mexico brought the tradition with them as they made their way up to what is now called Northern New Mexico in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
The particular morada of which Peña is a member was actually established right around the time of the Spanish flu. In March 2020, his hermanos shared with him their parents’ memories of the Spanish flu, and community members killed by it.
Those deaths shaped families, Peña said; some were forced to move, others remarried, and entire branches of his family were established. The community was also dealing with smallpox and polio, he said.
At the same time, the U.S. railroad industry was at its height, he said, as East Coast capitalists began extracting minerals and timber from what was then the New Mexico territory, before and as it became a state in 1912.
Then they started extracting young men from New Mexican communities to fight in the first and second world wars. Los Alamos National Laboratory forces people to participate in extractive industries, Peña said, while moving jobs out of their local communities and up the hill.
“They came back damaged, surplus,” he said. Then things really started to change, he said, because prison became a way to manage these people returning from war with PTSD.
Then groups like La Raza Unida started to organize around bringing health care to rural parts of Northern New Mexico, Peña said, to stop people from dying of preventable diseases.
“We’ve always been surplus, regardless of whether all the members in our community are disabled or not,” he said. “We stand in the way of progress because we represent a different paradigm. We represent a different era.”
Ongoing cultural genocide
Marquel Musgrave (Nambé) is the COVID Technical Assistance Specialist for the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center. She also sits on the advisory board for the COVID memorial project.
Life expectancy for Native people in the U.S. has decreased by nearly 6.5 years since the COVID pandemic began.
“We need an acknowledgement of the reality that we’re facing,” Musgrave said, including the loss of life and the loss of quality of life from Long COVID.
Every Pueblo community has handled it differently, Musgrave said. They have lost knowledge keepers, language teachers, caregivers, and many beloved community members.Some communities haven’t been able to gather in ceremony for years, to practice their traditions, and support those lost.
For Musgrave’s community at Nambé Pueblo, these traditions look very different than they did before COVID. At a wake for the death of a loved one, they provided air purifiers, and were mindful about ventilation in the space. Everyone wore masks.
“I know some communities still haven’t resumed their traditional dances and things like that,” Musgrave said, “Which leaves this grief of disconnection, especially when you are Pueblo, and your identity is connected to your people, to your community, to the land, and to the traditions that have upheld our way of life since forever.”
She sees losses to COVID as an extension of U.S. policy of cultural genocide toward Indigenous communities, including boarding schools and other forms of generational harm that have limited access to their own knowledge needed to survive and thrive.
Depending on the community, there are very few people who have the skills, the knowledge, to be able to pass down language, culture and teachings, that ensure sovereignty and nationhood, Musgrave said.
“I see the impact of U.S. policy affecting our communities in these really dramatic ways that continue systemically to enact violence and genocide upon our people,” Musgrave said. “It impacts our future, our sovereignty, it impacts systemically the health of our communities. That ultimately impacts a whole generation, a whole community’s ability to be healthy in the ways that we imagine for ourselves.”
Individual tragedy and collective trauma
If you are grieving the loss of a loved one to COVID, you are not alone, Bravo said.
“There’s so many of us out here who are so sad and who have given one another support that we couldn’t get anywhere else,” Bravo said.
Growing numb to COVID deaths and debility from Long COVID also cuts you off from the positive emotions, too, Nuñez del Prado said. The memorial will allow people to hold and acknowledge that pain, and in doing that, opening them up to the joys and celebrations.
“It’s not just about the suffering,” she said.
COVID grief is different, she said, because funeral processions were postponed for some until a year or two years after they died.
Her father died Bolivia, she was planning to go to his memorial, and then the U.S. lifted the mask mandates on air travel, making it impossible for her to go without risking her family and children.
“I still haven’t been able to grieve for him with my family,” Nuñez del Prado said in a Dec. 14 interview. “I still haven’t been able to hug my little sisters.”
Plans for the memorial allow visitors to hold up their phones and see the names and faces of those killed by COVID. They will be able to walk around the memorial and see it from different angles. It will also be interactive where people can upload the names and photos which allows a person’s loved ones to be seen by others in an array.
This is meant to contextualize someone’s private tragedy as part of collective trauma, collective suffering, and to “feel less alone,” Nuñez del Prado said.
People can enter photos and short bios of their loved ones at this link. The memorial will be interconnected with others and the one in Washington D.C., Nuñez del Prado said, so folks who enter an obituary for a loved one at one memorial site will also appear at others.
“COVID has shown us so many things, one is the way that we are all connected in our suffering and also in our healing and our love,” she said.
If you have lost a loved one during quarantine, and would like to hold an online service, the Mutual Aid Mourning and Healing Project has clergy and other facilitators who are ready to assist you.
If you are a member of the clergy and would like to volunteer to support people in need, you can sign up here.
If you are a death midwife/doula, therapist, or social worker who would like to volunteer to support people in need, you can sign up here.
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