Nonprofit leaders and local government push for a COVID-19 memorial

Rendering of an augmented reality component created by artist Marcos Lutyens. (Courtesy of Ken Romig, Consensus Planning)

When landscape architect Ken Romig was tasked with designing a COVID-19 memorial befitting New Mexico’s rich cultural roots, he asked himself a crucial question: How do New Mexicans remember?

The question overwhelmed Romig for a moment. He was originally approached by John Barney, Bernalillo County’s Parks, Recreation and Open Space Planning Director in the fall of 2021, about the memorial proposal. However, the question ultimately led to the idea of ​​building a memorial that would function as a pilgrimage site.

Romig envisioned visitors walking down a long path with walls designed like papel darts, traditional Mexican decorations, alcoves for them to leave offerings, and colorful gardens. The pilgrimage will culminate at a large stone base where people will be able to interact with the monument through augmented reality technology available on smartphones.

An augmented reality component — possibly thanks to technology donated by social media platform Snapchat — will allow visitors to see a series of photos of those lost to COVID-19.

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Marked by Covid, a national non-profit organization created to honor those who died during the pandemic, was involved in the process of creating the memorial. Members of the nonprofit organization are pushing to make the first Monday in March a federal day of remembrance for COVID-19. Arizona Democratic Rep. Greg Stanton introduced the resolution in the US House of Representatives.

“Marked by Covid works for remembrance, for better public health policy and awareness that things were done wrong, and most importantly to remember the huge number of people who have died and the greater number of people who have been affected,” said Eleanor Bravo, chair of the group’s steering committee for the COVID-19 memorial.

Bravo, whose sister died of COVID-19 in October 2020, along with the head of the New Mexico Covid Center, Janeth Nuñez del Prado, spearheaded the effort to build the memorial in the state. Nuñez del Prado said she decided to take on the challenge of leading the effort in New Mexico soon after her father passed away in May 2021.

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While other states are already working on their own memorials, Nuñez del Prado said the New Mexico memorial is one of the furthest along in the process and serves as a model for other states.

What all memorials would have in common, according to Bravo, is an augmented reality component. She said it’s appropriate because of how often people have relied on technology as their only means of communication during the pandemic.

“It’s so appropriate because so many of us have had to say goodbye to our loved ones with our devices, with Zoom, with our phones, with Facetime,” Bravo said. “We want to reclaim our device as a healing device.”

Nuñez de Prado said she hopes augmented reality can help those who have suffered losses feel less alone, realize it was part of a collective trauma and create a visual representation of the enormous loss. This feature will allow people to tap on each photo to read the individual’s name.

“Our relatives have been relegated to statistics, no one can imagine what a million empty seats look like at dinner time,” Nuñez del Prado said.

Both Bravo and Nuñez del Prado worked with Bernalillo County Parks, Recreation and Open Space to move the project forward, Bravo said. Their main goal right now is to identify funding for the project, which is currently estimated to cost $2 million, according to the county.

“We’re getting huge input and a lot of support,” Bravo said. “We want to include all voices. It’s not just for us, so we want everyone to have a say.”

The proposal of the memorial received the support of the local government. The resolution was introduced and approved at the Village of Corrales board meeting in September. Albuquerque City Councilwoman Tammy Fiebelkorn and Bernalillo County Commissioner Steven Michael Quezada will introduce a memorial resolution in early January, according to Barney.

“I look forward to introducing a resolution at the Bernalillo County Commission meeting in January that will begin a conversation with my fellow commissioners about an appropriate process to create a memorial that will be meaningful to the residents and staff of our county and will represent the rich diversity of cultural traditions of remembrance in our state,” said Quezada in the statement.

According to the current plan, the memorial in the regional recreation complex Dr. EA Swede Scholer near the Isleta Amphitheater in Mesa del Sol.

“We firmly believe that the people who are closest to the pain should be closest to the power and to ensure that the memorial is carried out in a way that reflects emotions, experiences and losses,” Nuñez del Prado said.

A database of names and photos is being developed for the virtual component, but without an existing database, names will be difficult to obtain, Bravo said.

They are encouraging New Mexicans to provide the names and photos of their lost loved ones in a Google form at https://tinyurl.com/7tp5f9c7 . Those without Internet access can contact Janeth Nuñez at 661-301-4267.

Nuñez del Prado and Bravo said they believe the New Mexico community needs a proper grieving process, and a memorial is something they say could bring the state’s residents together and provide comfort.

“We didn’t have a community of support. Death from COVID is stigmatized and people now want to forget about it,” Bravo said. “We will never be able to go back to what people thought was normal.”

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