The Esperanza Peace & Justice Center is hosting its annual Día de los Muertos celebration through Monday, Nov. 8, at the Rinconcito de Esperanza on the West Side, home to one of the most popular celebrations of the holiday in San Antonio. The event has sought to offer the community a space to mourn and celebrate those who have passed, but this year, the center is mourning one of their own volunteers.
Just three months ago, former Esperanza and Boys & Girls Club volunteer Angie Merla died at age 72 after a battle with stomach cancer. Merla was an artist at the center’s MujerArtes clay cooperative, and had been a volunteer for many years, often teaching classes and helping where she could.
MujerArtes is housed in an adobe building at the Rinconcito, and showcases the talents of women artists predominantly from the West Side.
This year, Merla’s friend and fellow Esperanza volunteer Blanca Rivera helped honor Merla by setting up an altar to celebrate her life. Rivera, herself a volunteer at the Esperanza for more than a decade, said that Merla’s death has been difficult to navigate, but the tradition of honoring the dead has allowed for her to deal with the pain.
“By remembering them, it takes away some of the sadness because I know that she is happy now,” Rivera said. “I imagine her sitting right over there, happy and watching all the people here. She would have spent the whole day inside making flowers from papel picado. She loved to teach classes on how to make flowers.”
Merla would also cook breakfast for the volunteers who helped set up the Esperanza’s event at the Rinconcito de Esperanza arts hub on the near West Side.
According to Rivera, Merla’s struggle with cancer began a few months prior to her death when she began experiencing stomach issues and couldn’t hold down food.
“In February or March, she started experiencing issues and she was vomiting everything,” Rivera said. “I was in Mexico taking care of my father for a month because they had just operated on him. Then her sister called me and she said, ‘Angie doesn’t want to tell you anything because she doesn’t want to worry you, but she is not eating.’ She was like that. Even when she was sick she didn’t want you to worry.”
When Rivera returned from Mexico, she urged Merla to get help right away. After being convinced to go to the doctor for an exam, Merla was advised to rush to the hospital. Later, Rivera received a devastating phone call from her friend.
“In the evening she called me crying to tell me she only had three months to live because she had stomach cancer,” she said. “I told her that after further examinations she was going to be fine. She didn’t think so. I knew deep down that she wasn’t going to be fine either.”
For nearly two months, Merla went back and forth between the hospital and the nursing home she was checked into. Ultimately, after a week in hospice, she passed away on Aug. 10.
Though the last months of Merla’s life were difficult, Rivera remembers the type of person she was when she was alive. According to Rivera, Merla heavily supported and advocated for the LGBTQ+ community. In addition, she is remembered for her tendency to send cards to people and express her care for them in various ways. In the last weeks of her life, Merla illustrated a drawing for Rivera’s daughter.
“Angie, being in the hospital, about to die—she made this (drawing) because my daughter is going to get married during Aquarius season,” she said. “She drew two fish and she said that it was my daughter and her boyfriend giving each other kisses, and the bubbles are hearts. She didn’t get the chance to make it on papel picado but she got to make this. So I take care of it like a treasure because it was one of her last creations.”
Though devastating, Rivera’s experience is hardly unique when it comes to mourning the sudden death of loved ones this year. With the COVID death toll surpassing 4,900 in Bexar County, the West Side’s Day of the Dead celebrations have offered solace to the community during the pandemic. According to the City of San Antonio’s Covid-19 dashboard, the West Side has some of the highest death rates in the city, with cumulative cases differing by the thousands based on ZIP code.
[ Related: MujerArtes clay cooperative hosts weekend exhibit before Valentine’s Day |Feb. 9, 2019 ]
For San Antonians across the city, the West side has provided a space to celebrate and honor those who have passed through various Día de los Muertos events. As for celebrating the living, Rivera has advice for those who are hesitant to show appreciation to their loved ones.
“It’s sad when you lose a friend, so if you have someone you love, call them regularly, give them a hug because you don’t know if you’re going to see them tomorrow.”
Kayla Padilla is a freelance journalist in San Antonio. She served as the editor-in-chief of Trinity University’s campus newspaper, the Trinitonian, in 2020 and 2021. Follow her on Twitter at @KaylaPadilla_
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