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Pandemic snapshot: Celebrating life, and death

Pandemic snapshot: Celebrating life, and death

Our latest cover story explores how Madison's Latino community — hit disproportionately hard by COVID-19 — is weathering the pandemic. This snapshot looks at the pandemic through the experience of one Madisonian. Check out the main story for a wider look.

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Susana Valtierra was in Nicaragua, where she spends each winter, when a colleague told her to book a flight back to Madison. It was mid-March, and Nicaragua had yet to detect its first virus case. She hadn’t planned to return until April, but as he watched the situation in the U.S. deteriorate, he told her she could have trouble getting back home if she waited. After a flood of calls and emails from friends and family said the same, she listened. 

The retired Madison College student life coordinator arrived home just five days before Gov. Tony Evers issued a stay-at-home order. Friends had already stocked her refrigerator with home-cooked meals.

“I came home to this apocalyptic world,” she said.

In the months since, she’s been dismayed by the U.S. response to the virus. “They’re doing more precautions down there than we are here,” she said of Nicaragua, which she notes, is “a third world country.”

She keeps busy reading and gardening at home, and she sees a small group of girlfriends for socially distanced hangouts in a space they’ve dubbed Garage Mahal. 

In a normal year, Valtierra would have booked musicians for five Marquette neighborhood festivals. But on a blustery Halloween morning, Valtierra was busy preparing for a different celebration. Each year around this time, she turns the front yard of her Commercial Avenue home into an homage to the dead in celebration of the Mexican Day of the Dead holiday. Paintings of her brother line the periphery, while photos and glitter-glued collages honoring her mother and grandmother cascade down the porch steps. Waist-high marigolds, a favorite flower for such celebrations, wither on their stems, just past their prime.

The altar has extra resonance as the pandemic’s official U.S. death toll surpasses 250,000, with the true toll likely far higher. “When I think of all of the people who've passed because of this virus, it just breaks my heart,” Valtierra said she tacked down photos against the late fall wind. 

“And then it saddens me even more to think that people don't believe it's real,” she said, wrapping her scarf over her mouth though no one was nearby. “How can you not believe it? How can you think that it's a global conspiracy that all these people have just volunteered to die?”

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