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State memorial would offer a path for New Mexicans to remember losses to COVID-19

On November 1st, many in New Mexico celebrate Dia De Los Muertos by remembering ancestors who have died. Soon those mourning loved ones lost to COVID19 will also be able to share their grief with others at a memorial that could be the first of its kind in the nation on a a site Marked By Covid New Mexico founders have worked with officials from Bernalillo County Parks, Recreation and Open Space Department to secure from the state.

When somebody dies from COVID, they often die alone without family and friends, a point that Olivia Ortiz, an Albuquerque resident, brought home during testimony on behalf of a resolution for a New Mexico COVID-19 Memorial at the Sandoval County Commission meeting in early October.

"On January 10 2022. My beautiful 45 year old daughter died of COVID. … … I also was not able to be at the hospital with her.  We had to say goodbye over Zoom. And I can't even explain to you what that does to your heart," Ortiz said.

She now cares for her only child’s two children and said a memorial would help her family. "It would help  my grandchildren be able to go to this memorial, and be able to share this experience with family members. And they would know that they're not alone in their grieving," she told the commission.

Ortiz is part ofMarked by COVID. Called “Marked” for short, it’s the largest national organization of COVID-19 grievers and survivors. Other members Janeth Nuñez del Prado, who lost her father, and co-organizer Eleanor Bravo, who lost her sister, said New Mexico is the first state to grant land for a permanent physical memorial. Nationally, Marked also pushes for a COVID Memorial Day in March.

Nuñez del Prado sees it as a way to heal from the collective trauma of COVID-19.

"This memorial is a way of acknowledging the loss coming back together as a community, and a space for truth and reconciliation," she said.

At the Bernalillo County Mesa Del Sol sports complex in southeast Albuquerque, under turquoise skies, with views of Mt. Taylor, Ladrón Peak, and the Sandia and Manzano mountains, Nuñez Del Prado and Bravo shared what it means to envision a COVID-19 Memorial overlooking the cottonwoods along the Rio Grande.

To Bravo, it means never forgetting what was lost.

"We must always remember. So that this never has to happen again," she said. She pointed out that there are few memorials that helps us remember the Spanish Flu from 100 years ago.

Bravo lost her sister to COVID on October 6, 2020. She shared her story at the Corrales Villagemeeting in late September. Eleanor’s sister was recovering from a knee replacement at home and Eleanor hoped she’d be safe. But her sister fell and went to the hospital.

"She was then sent to rehab and she was infected in rehab by a staff member who was not wearing a mask. She was re-hospitalized, she was intubated. And she lived for five days after that," said Bravo.

While the area where the memorial is planned includes film studios, soccer fields, and a concert amphitheater, it’s a bit removed from the city. A memorial out here won’t pull in casual foot traffic like an urban center. Nuñez del Prado and Bravo said a visitor would be someone on a pilgrimage, a tradition with deep roots in New Mexico. Travel to the site would be an act of intention, a reflective journey, that the design embodies.

The visitor would walk from one end of the memorial to a communal area at the center.

"Now we're going up a little hill now and I love this part of it because we're going a little bit higher and then we're going to have some fun Other views, and we'll be closer to the Sandias," Bravo said while walking the imagined path from the design.

There will be walls designed like papel picado, a traditional Mexican decorative craft made by cutting elaborate designs in tissue paper.

"When the sun shines, you'll be able to see the beautiful shadows. And there will be plants and flowers planted at locations where the path curves. And at the very end, you will get to the COVID plinth," Nuñez del Prado said as she gestured to the future path.

The plinth or memorial column would offer a virtual experience with those lost to COVID through the photos uploaded by those who loved them. A spiral of images would appear on a phone or tablet and circle upward into the sky.

"It will be like a spiral to heaven, I'll be able to see my dad's photo in an upward spiral to heaven, in the beautiful backdrop of our New Mexico sky and our New Mexico Earth," said Nuñez del Prado.  

New Mexico’s memorial plinth would connect to a virtual National Covid Memorial that networks with other memorials around the country using a new“Marked By Covid” Lens, supported bySnapchat, co-created by artistMarcos Lutyens and AR developer Ben Knutson.

"We had to say goodbye to our loved ones, virtually. So this memorial will allow us to reclaim our cell phones and our tablets as objects of healing and social connection," Nuñez del Prado pointed out.  

The design is a blend of the virtual vision created by Marked and another that the Bernalillo County Parks and Recreation Department had already developed as a result of a suggestion from a member of County staff.

Landscape architect Ken Romig said he wants the design to reflect New Mexico’s heritage, and its losses in the pandemic. He is working with Bernalillo County pro-bono under Consensus Planning, although he started the work at Dekker Perich Sabati.

"I don't want to over memorialize everything," Romig said.  "But I do think some things really deserve our attention. And our respect.  COVID is one of those things that we really need to respect and give some attention to."

Nuñez del Prado agreed,.

"My hope is that our elected officials will hear the clarion call of COVID survivors and that the time is now, memorialization needs to happen now."

Now Marked is seeking funding through donations and sponsorships as well as the support of state and local governments. Marked will present the resolution to support the memorial to the Albuquerque City Council on November 21, where Council Member Tammy Feibelkorn will introduce the resolution. On November 15, Bernalillo County Commissioner Quezada will introduce the resolution to the Bernalillo County Commission.

This isa link to the slide show presented with the memorial resolution.

Jered Ebenreck has volunteered in community radio for 30 years--from college radio in Maryland to KGNU, Boulder to WOMR, Provincetown to KUNM in 2004. Jered did Public Health reporting and analysis for KUNM from 2021-2022, while pursuing a graduate program in Public Health at UNM, with an emphasis on Social Ecology. Jered, with the help of his partner, is a caregiver for his mother with Alzheimer's.
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