[Mara Cavallaro is El Tecolote’s Report for America Corps Member who reports on mental health and healthcare inequality in the Latinx community; lead photo: Kristin Urquiza, co-founder of the SF-based pandemic justice organization Marked By Covid, poses for a portrait while holding an image of her and her father, Mark. In June of 2020, Mark died of the virus. Photos by Jeremy Word]
Two years ago, Kristin Urquiza set up an altar for her father, Mark, outside Arizona’s State Capitol. She balanced a framed photo of him, a prayer candle, and a copy of the Arizona Republic—with a cover story about the obituary she had penned—on a slab of concrete, and then invited people to add their own mementos to the ofrenda. It was the end of the first COVID summer, a season of devastating loss. In June, Mark Urquiza passed away from the virus, after trusting Gov. Doug Ducey’s declaration that “it’s safe out there.” By September, nearly 5,000 Arizonans had died. Why would he say that if it were dangerous? Kristin remembers her dad asking.
In his obituary, Urquiza wrote: “Mark, like so many others, should not have died from COVID-19. His death is due to the carelessness of the politicians who continue to jeopardize the health of brown bodies through a clear lack of leadership, refusal to acknowledge the severity of this crisis, and inability and unwillingness to give clear and decisive direction on how to minimize risk.” Maryvale, the neighborhood in Phoenix, Arizona where Kristin was raised and where her father passed away, is 80 percent Latinx and 40 percent immigrant. It was one of the hardest-hit zip codes in the state. In San Francisco, where Urquiza lives now, Latines are disproportionately represented in COVID cases and deaths—which means they’re also disproportionately represented in the population of people grieving pandemic losses. On average, each COVID death in the U.S. has left nine close relatives bereaved.
Grief, paired with the understanding that politicians were prioritizing corporate interests over people, “felt like a planet sitting on my chest,” Kristin says. And so she made it her universe, co-founding the SF-based pandemic justice organization Marked By Covid (MBC) in 2020. For the past two years now, Urquiza has worked to honor those we’ve lost and those who are grieving—especially in the communities most affected by the pandemic. “This collective grief—the collective marking of this time in history—is essential,” she told El Tecolote. “Grief needs to be acknowledged. Loss needs to be acknowledged and recognized to be able to feel it, grow, and heal.”
Marked By Covid’s policy platform is extensive, spanning everything from masking requirements to free therapy services to universal healthcare. In August, Urquiza and Raia Small—of Senior Disability Action—co-signed a letter to San Francisco’s health officials, demanding that indoor masking requirements be reinstated, free masks be distributed, and testing protocols be reintroduced. In 2020, 2021, and again this year, MBC reached out to Mayor London Breed about creating a local memorial, but received no response.
Now, the organization’s momentum lies mainly in the efforts for two broader memory projects: a National COVID Memorial and a federal COVID Memorial Day, on the first Monday of March. The bill for the former is backed by Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren; between the Senate and the House it has nearly 100 co-sponsors. Both are an attempt to counteract the real-time revisionist history that downplays the tragedy of the pandemic.
“It’s climate change in the 1990s once again,” Urquiza says. “There is an existential threat and instead of doing the right thing to reorient our society and protect people, we’re identifying business interests to protect at the expense of everything and everyone.” Grief is difficult enough. Compounded with policies that operate as though COVID is over—or that don’t take seriously the virus that has caused so much loss—it can become unbearable. “It’s infuriating that our federal government is leading the charge on declaring premature victory on this virus, because it’s making it worse. And it’s making it worse in particular for people who have already shouldered way too much of the burden,” Urquiza said. “COVID is not over for the more than 400 people who have been dying a day since April or May…COVID will never be over for us as a country as long as we don’t reckon with what happened.”
The nature of the pandemic and its politicization has meant not only private, isolated mourning but also grief that is dismissed, contested, or straight-up denied. In her advocacy work, Urquiza has heard everything from, “Well, they look like they were overweight, so that’s why they died,” to “They had it coming.” For Marked By Covid, visible memorials in public spaces are a way to acknowledge collective grief, while refusing society’s cruel minimization of COVID losses. In promising to remember, Urquiza explains, we shape our future.
Perhaps more than most, Marcos Lutyens understands that we inherit what is memorialized. The LA-based multimedia artist behind Marked By Covid’s installation designs “grew up with memorials, because my great-great-uncle was an architect that worked on a lot of [them],” he says. One of the elder Lutyens’ most famous works was Thiepval, a monument in France dedicated to servicemen from World War I without known graves. “He had to make room for 70,000 names,” Marcos explains. “I see parallels with that project, [with] trying to incorporate such a huge number of names, but also trying to maintain reverence [for each one].”
In 2020, when, he says, the world was “paralyzed” with fear, Marcos began making felt roses—one for each person lost to the virus. As death counts rose, he enlisted help from the community, placing rose making kits (each with enough felt to make eight roses, glue, and instructions) into brown paper bags and delivering them to schools, churches, Girl Scouts, and homes. People would make their own roses, place them back in the brown bags, and return them to collection sites, where Lutyens would gather them for the installation.
The resulting Rose River Memorial, originally displayed in East L.A., was replicated in cities around the country: Bakersfield, Burbank, Topeka, Nashville, Maui. Often, the roses were placed outside City Halls or Capitol buildings, in an “activist protest [against] the fact that the awful situation hadn’t been acknowledged, that many farm laborers had died from COVID, and that [the virus] really hit the Latino community more than anybody,” the artist says. The project made the front page of The New York Times.
But soon, Lutyens couldn’t keep up. By 2021, over 500,000 people had died.
Fueled by “desperation,” he co-designed a new concept with Marked By Covid—an augmented reality digital memorial. The prototype, displayed at a Día de los Muertos event this October in LA, consists of a circular monument base, or a ‘plinth,’ that functions both as a place to leave offerings and as the catalyst for a digitized gallery. When scanned by phone, a helix, circling upwards towards the sky, appears on the screen. Floating inside are photographs of those lost to COVID, pulled from Marked By Covid’s searchable database. If you type a name, an image, a biography, and sometimes audio submitted by the deceased’s family and friends will appear. It would be the first large-scale personalized multimedia memorial.
In some ways, the design seems to be inspired by the online pandemic message boards where for years now people have posted their writing about lost loved ones. These digital spaces, like WhoWeLost.org or the City of Oakland’s Tribute Map of Remembrance Stories, have been instrumental in bringing people together during quarantine. Like long COVID advocacy work, collective grieving first happened online, and the memorial prototype pays homage to that. “We live in a time of technology,” he said. “It seems normal, [or] organic…that we should incorporate electronics into the memorialization of COVID in these times.”
For now, Marked By Covid’s goal is to establish these innovative monuments all around the country, in an interconnected network of memorials. There’s hope for a national one, too, but building them “everywhere” makes the sites both accessible and localized, Marcos explains. Most of all, the hope is that public recognition of COVID loss—past and present— will “create healing in our communities, especially coming out of an era…of so much misrepresentation of truth.”
“And,” he says of the memorial project, “we’d love to do one in San Francisco.”
+++To learn more, support Marked By Covid, or submit a remembrance to someone lost to COVID, visit NationalCovidMemorial.com.