Inside Kerrie Rodriguez’s tiny flower shop in southeast San Diego, a vibrant Día de los Muertos altar honors the lives of strangers, many of them victims of violence and crime.
The altar features photographs, candles, flowers and other colorful Day of the Dead decorations. The long-standing Mexican tradition, celebrated Nov. 1 and 2, is an act of remembrance, a celebration of life, a reflection on mortality.
Rodriguez, 24, never met the men, women and teenagers whose portraits are on display, but she knows the lingering pain their families feel. Her 23-year-old sister, Stephanie Rodriguez, was killed in a DUI crash in Chula Vista on New Year’s Day 2018. Stephanie Rodriguez was a passenger, her boyfriend the driver.
He was charged in the case, pleaded guilty and later was placed on probation at sentencing. He was sent to prison later when he picked up another DUI charge, to which he pleaded guilty, according to the county district attorney’s office.
For a second year in a row, Kerrie Rodriguez set up the altar in her Chollas View shop, Mums Flowers, to show families they are not alone, she said.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, mothers, fathers and siblings came together and placed the photographs of their loved ones on the altar.
“Sadly we all share the same pain,” said Ana Martinez, who left behind on the altar a photograph of her 21-year-old son, Fabian Cerda.
Folk artist Ofelia Esparza, L.A.’s most admired altar maker, reminds a somber city of the meaning of Día de los Muertos. Hint: It’s not Mexican Halloween.
Police allege Martinez’s estranged boyfriend fatally shot Cerda during an argument in El Cajon on Aug. 28, 2020. The boyfriend has pleaded not guilty to a murder charge.
For Martinez, the emotions are still raw.
“My situation is really, really tough,” she said.
Two months ago at work, she broke down in tears “out of nowhere,” she said. At first she didn’t know why, but when she looked at her cellphone, she saw the date. It was a year to the day since she had dressed her son’s body for his funeral.
Any time she hears about a death, she said, it takes her back to “Day 1.”
“It brings back all the pain,” she said.
Martinez built her own Day of the Dead altar in her home — for her son and other loved ones — but the one in Mums Flowers generated a sense of community that was comforting, especially among mothers who have bonded over their losses, Martinez said.
“Recently I thought I was going crazy. I was forgetting things again” — like her own address, she said. “I didn’t know that was normal until I asked somebody.”
The altar was organized with the help of community-based groups, including Union of Pan Asian Communities’ Community Violence Response Team and Mothers With a Message. Bevelynn Bravo leads both organizations, which support families of victims of violence and crime.
Bravo brought a photograph to the altar, too — a photo of her 21-year-old son, Jaime Bravo Jr., who was fatally stabbed outside a friend’s apartment in City Heights in 2012.
“When a loved one dies, especially in a tragic way, the world doesn’t stop, but for the families their world has come to a standstill. They are devastated and broken,” Bravo said. “To acknowledge their loved one is all they want. It is a form of showing love.
“Showing that you feel their pain and are coming together to lift them up is what we do in our community for one another. It is what we all should do when a young life is taken.”
After several years at the Sherman Heights Community Center, the altar was set up in Mums Flowers last year for the first time. Rodriguez said she was unsure if the COVID-19 pandemic would derail the tradition, so she welcomed the altar into her flower shop.
Nestled in a small shopping center on Market Street, Mums Flowers opened in 2019. It was born out of the loss Rodriguez’s family experienced. The flower shop’s name is a nod to the name her sister used for their mom.
After her sister’s death, Rodriguez’s family took flowers to the gravesite every weekend, Rodriguez said, but they soon realized it was an expensive ritual. It’s why she sells $6 bouquets at Mums Flowers.
“Being able to take your loved one a bouquet of flowers every week or every other week, it could get very expensive,” she said. “We know how it is.”
Every year, Mexican immigrants in California and elsewhere return to their hometowns for the Day of the Dead — many from indigenous communities that celebrate the holiday with elaborate traditions.
Located near three cemeteries, Rodriguez said she often bonds with customers who have lost a loved one. Some customers ask her if the faces on the altar were her family members, she said. She tells them they were community members, many of them taken too soon because of violence and crime, like her sister.
Rodriguez said she set up the altar for others, but it helps her, too.
“Just hearing other people’s story and knowing that ... I’m not the only one that’s gone through it, it helps,” she said, her voice quavering.
When she looks at the altar, the bright colors remind her of her sister, she said. “My sister was very extra,” she said as she chuckled.
Mums Flowers will host a candlelight vigil Monday at 7 p.m. The public is invited to bring a photo of a loved one.
Hernandez writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
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