Hermiston commemorates COVID deaths with Día de los Muertos

Folklorico dancers perform at a Dia de los Muertos celebration at Hermiston High School in Hermiston, Ore., Nov. 4, 2022.

Antonio Sierra / OPB

Five years ago, Omar Medina helped organize a Día de los Muertos celebration at Hermiston High School that drew about 80 people. Organizers for the 2022 Día celebration could tell it was going well when they ran out of tamales that were made to feed 400.

Under the fluorescent lights of the Hermiston High School common area, the Wednesday event had all the usual contrasts of the Mexican Day of the Dead.

The black clothes of mourning were contrasted by vibrant flowers and embroidery. The skull face paint of visitors was backdropped by the brightly colored papel picado hanging from the ceiling. The faded family photos and lit candles for departed loved ones on the ofrenda were accompanied by music and dancing.

The event was officially dedicated to people who died from COVID-19, a virus that hit Latinos in Umatilla County hard, especially in the early days of the pandemic.

Zaira Sanchez, the director of community organizing for the La Grande-based Oregon Rural Action, said the seeds of the idea were started following the success of a Día de los Niños event in April.

“We make up such a big part of this community and let’s celebrate that,” she said. “Let’s come together. We know that our gente likes to get together and celebrate and have a good time; el ambiente.”

To put on the celebration, Oregon Rural Action connected with Euvalcree, a nonprofit that serves Latinos and other underrepresented communities with offices in Ontario and Hermiston. Marisa Mendoza, Euvalcree’s operational regional manager, said her organization was already thinking of doing a similar event when the two groups started talking.

“I think it lets them know that their memories are still alive and that we will forever remember what happened and they’re not forgotten,” she said about the event.

An altar with photos and candles sits in a high school common area. In the foreground is a flowered arch with skeletons in traditional Mexican dresses on each end.

An ofrenda honoring the lives of people lost to COVID-19 at a Dia de los Muertos celebration at Hermiston High School in Hermiston, Ore., Nov. 2, 2022.

Antonio Sierra / OPB

The event grew to include more community organizations, like Oregon Human Development Corp. and the Eastern Oregon Center for Independent Living. But Hermiston High School students and staff also became a key part of the program.

Sanchez said the two musical groups who performed during the event are Hermiston High School students. Many of those students came from Juntos, a student group meant to connect young people with cultural events.

Medina, a Hermiston High social worker and Juntos adviser, said it was a learning opportunity.

“It’s been incredible just to see and give the opportunity to celebrate something like this to the students and educate other students who have never even heard of Día de los Muertos, whether they’re of Hispanic descent or not,” he said. “It’s just cool to learn and I’m still learning about the day as well.”

Jacky Orozco, a Hermiston junior and Juntos’ vice president, took something from the joy expressed on Día de los Muertos.

“It also adds a positive light on death,” she said. “Instead of people feeling sad on this day, they can celebrate their past ancestors.”

Mendoza, the Euvalcree manager, said she lost a mother-in-law to COVID and Sanchez said her 30-year-old cousin contracted the virus right before her family was about to celebrate her grandfather’s 100th birthday. The cousin died after going on a ventilator.

“It was really hard on everyone because it shouldn’t be that way,” she said. “No one should have to put their child to rest.”

Sanchez said it motivated her to continue her organization’s vaccination efforts with the local Latino community. The state attributes efforts from these kinds of organizations with closing the vaccination gap between white and Latino Oregonians.

A woman on the right paints a skull design on the face of a woman on the left.

Erin An, right, paints the face of Griselda Paredes at a Dia de los Muertos celebration at Hermiston High School in Hermiston, Ore., Nov. 2, 2022.

Antonio Sierra / OPB

Organizers of the Día de los Muertos event hoped to create a gathering where Latino residents could feel comfortable. The event took place in a city where Latino influence is just starting to match up with raw population numbers and being felt in some of Hermiston’s new traditions. The city hosts one of the region’s biggest Cinco de Mayo events, and Latinos are becoming a more empowered voice in decision-making.

When the Hermiston School Board came close to appointing an all-white school board in a district where about two-thirds of students are Hispanic or Latino, school staff and members of the public openly criticized the move. The board eventually filled the vacancy with a Latina community member.

With the tamales exhausted Wednesday and the face painting line waned, organizers began thinking toward next year. With the success already apparent, they said they would like to see the Hermiston Día de los Muertos become an annual event.