It is very hard to lose a dad, from one moment to another without being prepared, this pandemic came from nowhere to destroy our lives and leave us in hunger and misery. I never thought this would break our hearts like this. So many families crying and without food and jobless, how can they face this.
I have great sadness in my heart because I could not be with him in his last moments, it hurts me very much not to have been present.
It is very sad that overnight we no longer have her with us, without any help and such hard expenses, I do not know what will happen. God will help us.
—From the online memorial posted by Make the Road New York
The year 2020 has seen a reckoning with public memory. Around the United States, Black Lives Matter protestors have toppled prominent public memorials honoring colonizers, slave owners, Confederate generals, and white supremacists. Nearly everywhere, graffiti artists have tagged sculptures using brightly colored spray paint, turning bronze statuary and granite plinths into symbols of outrage rather than of past glory. In Newark’s Washington Park, the pedestal that once supported a statue of Christopher Columbus is empty, having been removed by the city to save it from destruction. Nearby, an equestrian statue of George Washington has been canceled through the simple act of spray-painting.
The protests over public memorials raise profound questions. Whose past should we remember? Who should be commemorated? Whose lives matter?
These questions are even more urgent at a moment when several hundred thousand Americans, disproportionately Black, indigenous, and Latinx, have fallen to the COVID-19 pandemic. As we debate memorialization, we should turn our eyes toward the everyday memorials, those that recall the ordinary people we have lost in 2020. They offer a poignant if fleeting alternative to public monuments to the powerful, one that reflects the tragedy of now.
During the pandemic, I have been visiting segregated neighborhoods throughout New York to document its effects on the everyday life of the city. I have paid special attention to those neighborhoods that are home to essential workers, many of them immigrants from Latin America. Corona, Queens, was one of the hardest-hit places in all of the United States during the first wave of the virus. There I found an improvised memorial to local people who have died of COVID-19.
July 5, 2020: While there are thousands of portraits of victims of the pandemic online, it’s rare to see them on the walls of buildings along busy urban crossroads. One notable exception is a group of 30 color photocopies attached to a wooden fence at 104-21 Roosevelt Avenue, Queens. The exhibit is sponsored by Make the Road New York, a community organization. Labeled “Memorial to Those Who Walked with Us,” the collection of pictures depicts young and old enjoying life in their homes, at their places of work, and on city streets. The wall has attracted people who want to affix portraits of their loved ones in a public place, prompting Make the Road to add a note in English and Spanish saying, “DO NOT put pictures without family approval.”
July 18, 2020: When I inquired why the memorial portraits were left unnamed, I was told by a member of Make the Road New York to look up their names on the organization’s website. Following that advice, I was surprised to discover that “those who walked with us” often had old-fashioned Spanish names such as Rodrigo, Alcenio, Sabino, and Ifigenia.
August 24, 2020: I found two passersby looking at the memorial portraits. One of them remarked that he was acquainted with a person in a photo wearing a Mexican sombrero. When I asked him what he felt the purpose was of placing portraits of deceased people on a wall, he answered, “If a family member sees him, he finds out.” So, besides functioning as a memorial, the photos serve as a message board.
August 30, 2020: When I saw the memorial portrait of Yaqueline on the gates of her beauty salon on 101st Street in Corona, I assumed that she was another victim of the pandemic. But when I asked about it, a neighbor replied that she had been knifed by her jealous partner. He asked me if I was “looking for a lost relative,” explaining that there were no public portraits of the victims of the pandemic in the neighborhood.
October 4, 2020: By now the photocopies with the portraits had begun to fall from the fence. Passersby were trampling on the likeness of Jorge Jara, “Papito querido,” as it lay on the street. Another portrait had clearly fallen but had been picked up and placed back with the rest.
I was surprised to discover that the memorial has curators. By October 14, the stained and crinkled portrait of Jorge Jara was back with the rest of “those who walked with us.” When comparing a three-month-old view of the “walkers” with a recent one, I found that some of the pictures, such as the wedding portrait, were not part of the original set, indicating that the project is alive and ongoing.
As long as they remain attached to a temporary fence in Corona, these images of waiters, maintenance workers, pushcart operators, and people relaxing in their homes or taking a break from work continue to remind us of these people’s existence and of how they carried both their origins and their new country in their hearts. When I returned to revisit the memorial on November 21, the portraits of “those who walked with us” had been completely removed, and an American flag had been placed behind the green fence. Fortunately the likenesses of the departed have found a home at the Library of Congress.