Throughout 2020, federal shelter-in-place orders and social distancing measures have led to a pause in festivals and social gatherings. In Flagstaff, locals have found ways to continue to celebrate life in the face of death during DíasDe Los Muertos, also known as Day of the Dead.

Nuestras Raíces, which translates to “our roots,” is a nonprofit organization in Flagstaff that’s mission is to promote Hispanic culture and history in the city’s community, according to its website. The organization was co-founded by President Lydia Anaya and her sister, Clorinda Quiroz Lozano.

For 17 years, the Museum of Northern Arizona and Nuestras Raíces held an annual “Celebraciones de la Gente,” or “celebration of the people,” festival for Day of the Dead so the Flagstaff community can honor their loved ones. Anaya said due to COVID-19, in-person celebrations this year have been canceled. 

Anaya said the festival, much like many other events across the city, went virtual this year. She explained Nuestras Raíces wanted to keep everyone safe and prevent the spread of COVID-19, leading the board of Nuestras Raíces to cancel in-person events. 

According to the organization’s website, the festival is focused on featuring different types of art, such as crafts, music and dance. The festival also has colorful and elaborate ofrendas, or altars, that honor the community members’ loved ones who have died. The website said the weekend-long event usually offers insightful heritage programs to educate the community. 

Traditional holidays like Day of the Dead can put populations at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC released alternative activities for families to honor their loved ones while preventing and mitigating the spread of the virus. It suggests families stay at home and celebrate by playing music, decorating masks and altars and attending virtual events. 

Anaya said Nuestras Raíces hosted a virtual event Oct. 7, teaching local families how to set up an altar for their loved ones in their own homes and how to personalize them. 

“[The altars are] a way to share their story,” Anaya said. “If they had a drink every now and then, we’ll put their favorite drink, whether it’s tequila or beer.” 

Nuestras Raíces has inspired many families and community businesses to set up altars. According to Nuestras Raíces’ Facebook page, Colton’s Community Garden chose to celebrate the Latinx tradition of Day of the Dead. The community garden also set up Day of the Dead altars, which will be open for members of the community to come and place their offerings, photos of their loved ones and blessings. 

Anaya said that while each altar is different, there are some must-haves. The traditional Day of the Dead flowers, marigolds, are used because of their purification properties and their strong smell is said to draw a deceased family member’s spirit to the altar.  Water is also typically included to help the passed loved ones refresh after their long journey to the altar. 

Nuestras Raíces is not the only organization in Flagstaff offering celebration alternatives to the public. NAU’s Latinx Student Union (LSU) graduate assistant Oscar Lujan said LSU is partnering with NAU’s Office of Inclusion to set up an altar for the NAU Latinx community to have a space to honor their loved ones.

Lujan said the altar will continue to follow NAU and the CDC’s guidelines for social distancing. It will be open for a week starting Nov. 2 through Nov. 6, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“The altar will stand alone within the IMQ [Office of Inclusion] center, so no gatherings or anything like that will be occurring,” Lujan said, “It is going to be a place where people can put pictures of loved ones.”

LSU faculty adviser Jermaine Martinez said death is a lingering thought in the minds of the NAU community. Because of COVID-19, LSU wants this altar to be more than a part of a tradition. 

“We really want to present this altar as a gift to the campus community,” Martinez said. 

With death on the minds of many students at NAU, LSU wants this altar to be a cathartic or therapeutic space for students to come and reflect, Martinez said. He explained that LSU hopes the altar will help students confront the anxiety they might have over death during the pandemic. 

Martinez said the Latinx community has a unique relationship with death compared to other cultures, and Day of the Dead is an opportunity for the Latinx community to share their experiences with others. 

Senior and LSU club member Julie Joseph said the Day of the Dead is about more than celebrating the life of her ancestors.

“It is a celebration of our lives as continuing the legacy of our ancestors and what they have provided to us throughout the development of our cultural identity and of our families and ourselves,” Joseph said. 

Martinez said Day of the Dead is very personal to the Latinx community because it looks at life and death from a different perspective. 

“It is honoring those who have passed, and celebrating life in the face of death,” Martinez said. “That’s a fundamentally different way of relating to death than what we encounter oftentimes in the most conventional U.S. culture.” 

LSU will also  work with NAU’s Mental Help Support Squad (MHHS) to offer resources and aid anyone in need during the holiday season and pandemic, Martinez explained. According to Campus Health Services, MHSS is a group of students who are trained by Counseling Services to be a resource for their peers. These students are trained to identify and assist others with mental health distress, as well as provide resources for long-term help and advice.

 For those who want to participate in the celebration but do not feel comfortable visiting the altar, Joseph said they should reach out to Lujan and herself via the LSU Instagram account. Students can send photos of their loved one and Lujan or Joseph will print the photos out and place them on the altar themselves. 

Joseph explained that LSU wants students to feel welcomed to participate in this holiday, and comfortable to participate on their own terms. She said LSU wants to make sure students know their culture and traditions can also be found away from home.