“Familia es todo.”
That is the family motto that Ramona Flores-Cavázos was raised hearing — “Family is everything.”
So when she lost seven family members and close friends to COVID-19 all in the same year, Flores-Cavázos and her family were devastated.
An uncle. A brother. A sister-in-law. A cousin. Several close friends.
Flores-Cavázos still cries when she talks about them.
Her brother and sister-in-law, Conrado and Rosa Flores, both 73, had been married 55 years when they took their last breaths together hand-in-hand at a hospital in Yakima last summer.
“We’ve had loved ones pass. That’s not something we’re unfamiliar with, but to lose seven in one year, that’s absolutely unheard of.”
When the Dia de Muertos Festival Seattle (DDMFS) Committee heard Flores-Cavázos’ story, they invited her to create an altar at the annual Seattle Center Dia de Muertos festival to honor her loved ones and others lost to COVID-19 over the two years of the pandemic.
Celebrated on Nov. 1 and 2 each year, Dia de Muertos, also known as Dia de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead) originated in Mexico as a way to remember, honor and celebrate loved ones who have died. Filled with family, food and the sharing of happy memories of the dead, it is not meant to be a somber holiday, but a celebration of death as a natural part of life.
Flores-Cavázos and the DDMFS committee use “Dia de Muertos” to honor what they say are the pre-Hispanic roots of the holiday.
Growing up in Eastern Washington, Flores-Cavázos did not see many Dia de Muertos festivals, but after moving to Seattle in the early 1980s, she said, she saw community centers hosting the festival and was drawn to them.
“I love the fact that it celebrates and honors the memory of our loved ones. It’s a very beautiful tradition,” she said. “For us, death is not something to be afraid of. We all go through it. It’s just a part of life, if you will.”
As the festivals grew over the years from small gatherings at someone’s house to being celebrated at large venues in the city like Seattle Center and El Centro de la Raza, Dia de Muertos grew in significance for Flores-Cavázos as well.
“As one grows older, it takes on more and more significance. As we get older and see more family members passing, it becomes more and more important to us,” she said. “[And] it’s taken a heck of a lot more important significance in the last couple of years.”
This year, to remember the seven family and friends that they lost to COVID-19, Flores-Cavázos and her daughter will put together an altar in the Fisher Pavilion at Seattle Center featuring traditional decorations of the centuries-old holiday — sugar skulls, bright orange flowers known as the “flowers of the dead” (or cempasúchil), strings of colorful paper with intricately cut designs (papel picado), candles and photos of loved ones who have passed.
For a personal touch, they’ll be adding some Seahawks paraphernalia for all the Seahawks fans in the family, and pan de muerto (bread of the dead), which she says everyone in her family loves.
Flores-Cavázos still cries when she talks about the invitation from DDMFS.
Seattle Center is a special place for her family. Her father, who passed away many years ago, loved going to the festivals at Seattle Center. Attending the annual Fiestas Patrias festival, which celebrates the independence of several Latin American countries, became a tradition for her family. Her granddaughter now performs in the Mexican folk dance group Joyas Mestizas at several Seattle Center events every year, the same youth dance group her daughters were members of when they were younger.
Flores-Cavázos will work as a volunteer for the festival as well, teaching a class on how to make paper cempasúchil for Dia de Muertos. Although she has volunteered at Dia de Muertos festivals around the city for the past several years, this year, her volunteer work is a way she’s keeping the memory of her loved ones close and processing her grief.
“In the past couple of years, Dia de Muertos has become even more significant to us because of that fragility of life,” she said. “We all know death is a part of living, but to have seven family and friends to pass in the same year, it just demonstrates really how fragile life is.”
This year, as Flores-Cavázos remembers the overwhelming loss her family has endured in the past two years, she says she will think back to the last time her whole family came together for a reunion.
“That’s a memory that brings a smile to my face and warmth to my heart,” she said.
Every other year, Flores-Cavázos has helped organize a family reunion that brings together nearly 200 of her extended family members from all over the country. They dance, they sing, they eat.
Over the past 20 or 30 years, the reunions have long outgrown her grandfather’s house in Eastern Washington. What was once a picnic at the park became a three-day event, complete with a picnic and a dance.
The last reunion was in 2018. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they haven’t had one since then, and Flores-Cavázos isn’t sure when, or even if, they’ll have one again.
Once a driving force behind the reunions, Flores-Cavázos isn’t sure she has the heart to continue planning them.
“My uncle, brother and sister-in-law were really crucial in helping get that going,” she said. “I don’t think I have it in me to do it again after losing so many people.”
She’s not giving up on them entirely though. She has already reached out to other family members hoping they will take the reins whenever the pandemic subsides. She hopes others who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 will embrace the message of Dia de Muertos and find ways to carry on, too.
“Embrace it. Embrace the tradition for what it is — for honoring our loved ones,” she said. “Know that our loved ones would not want us to be sad. They would want us to continue living, loving and being there for each other. We need to continue our lives honoring their memory and honoring their lives by living as they would want us to live.”
“Life is so fragile,” she said.