SAN JUAN — Local organizers read off 32 names on the steps of the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle on Friday evening toward the close of a vigil honoring the Rio Grande Valley’s COVID-19 victims and urging continued vigilance against the virus as students and teachers begin to transfer back to in-person instruction.

After each six names one of the organizers would hold up a paper with the individuals’ photographs printed on it.

It was too dark on the basilica stairs to make out the faces of the COVID-19 victims the organizers were honoring. You could see their faces more clearly inside the basilica, on an ofrenda set up a few steps from the dais.

Picture frames displaying those people’s faces were spread out on the altar, interspersed with prayer candles and bright flower blossoms. Statues of saints and angels and the Savior gazed out over them from the back of the altar.

Many of the faces in those frames were older, grandmothers and grandfathers likely. Some were decidedly middle-aged, and one young man looked like he couldn’t be much more than 30.

The faces on the altar represented a mere fraction of the amount of people in the Valley who have died of COVID-19 so far.

Hidalgo County alone has lost just under 2,000 residents to the virus — that’s enough faces to replicate that altar 60 times, enough altars to stretch a good deal of the way around the building.

Victims of COVID-19 are memorialized at an altar set up for a vigil Friday at the basilica in San Juan. (Monitor photo)

“This evening’s mass will sort of initiate a time for us to ask God for his mercy — we’ve seen the faces and names of persons that are so familiar to many of you,” Bishop Daniel Flores said at a Mass proceeding the vigil. “And ask him for a strength in the community to be able to bear with one another the sorrows which we have all borne.”

Many of those sorrows were bared on the steps of the basilica an hour later. One of the vigil’s speakers talked about losing an uncle to the virus. Another, a professor of family and community medicine at University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, talked about the mental effects of the pandemic.

In particular, however, the vigil focused on students’ return to campus in the RGV. Its organizers, the Democratic Socialists of America Rio Grande Valley and PSJA AFT, issued a list of demands for a return to campus that includes additional staff hiring for the pandemic, increased hygienic steps on campus, free COVID-19 testing for individuals suspected of being infected and increased pandemic transparency.

Much of the sentiment expressed at the vigil was expressly opposed to in-person instruction, at least at this juncture.

“I love school, I think in-person education is so important; but it is not important right now,” Daniela Garza, a doctor who spoke at the event, said. “Right now, safety and caring for these children is what is truly important.”

Zonia Castillo, a school nurse, said she didn’t feel sufficient precautions were being taken to protect students and educators.

“This is a life or death situation,” she said.

A small crowd attended the vigil. Speakers included Bishop Flores, a few educators and community members as speakers.

State Rep. Sergio Munoz Jr., who was billed as a speaker at the event, did not attend.