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‘White flag’ display a tribute to 67 locals who died of Covid-19

Pandemic victims include ‘friends, family and noted members of co

Attendees at a Sept. 24 memorial ceremony outside the San Benito County administration building mourned the loss of loved ones who have died of Covid-19. 

John Bocanegra—a well-known member of the Hollister community who connected countless people with employment opportunities as the manager of Infinity Staffing—would probably be alive today if the Covid-19 vaccine had been available to him, according to his daughter, Gail Hernandez-Muhilly.

Bocanegra died of Covid-19 Jan. 24 at age 69, after battling the illness at Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital for about two weeks, Hernandez-Muhilly said at a Sept. 24 memorial ceremony outside the San Benito County Admin building. She said her father had been diligent about avoiding crowds and wearing a mask since the pandemic started, but all it took was one day out in public for him to catch the airborne coronavirus and become sick with Covid-19.

John Bocanegra

He would have been “first in line” for the Covid-19 vaccine, but he died about one week before he and others in his risk group were eligible for the first doses, Hernandez-Muhilly said.

“I truly believe if my dad was vaccinated, he would be here today,” Hernandez-Muhilly said in front of a crowd of about 100 people at the Sept. 24 memorial event. “My father believed in science and he believed in God. He believed God would bring help to his children. God gave us a blessing, and that blessing is the vaccine.”

Bocanegra is one of 67 San Benito County residents and more than 68,000 Californians who have died of Covid-19 since the pandemic began in March 2020. Worldwide, more than 4.7 million people have died from Covid-19, according to Johns Hopkins University. In the U.S., more than 690,000 people have lost their lives to Covid.

County supervisors led the Sept. 24 ceremony behind the small lawn in front of the admin building on Fourth Street, which had been adorned with 67 white flags representing each of the deaths. Some of the flags were embroidered with a victim’s name, and Supervisor Bea Gonzales read the names of 24 of the locals who have lost their lives to the pandemic.

The flags will remain on the county admin building lawn through the month of October.

“We are here to honor the residents of San Benito County—friends, family and noted members of the community—who have been lost to this disease,” Gonzales said. She added that the deaths and illness have become “personal” to an increasing number of people including herself, as her ex-husband died of Covid-19 in June.

Numerous attendees of the ceremony shared memories of their loved ones who have died of Covid-19. In her remarks, Hernandez-Muhilly listed off the names of several friends, family members and acquaintances lost to Covid-19 in San Benito County. These include John Sander and Frank Halayay, former owners of Black Cooper Sander Funeral Home and Cozy Cup Café, respectively.

Attendees at a Sept. 24 memorial ceremony outside the San Benito County administration building mourned the loss of loved ones who have died of Covid-19. 

Bocanegra was a fixture of San Benito County as a fourth-generation lifelong resident. His three adult children and seven grandchildren still live close by, Hernandez-Muhilly said. He had been married to his wife, Virginia, since 1972.

He had a lengthy career as a manager of a variety of different businesses. Since 2010, he had been the corporate general manager of the Hollister branch of Infinity Staffing.

“His most treasured moments came from being a loving husband, father and grandfather,” reads Bocanegra’s obituary, posted on the Black-Cooper Sander Funeral Home webpage. “His family meant the world to him, and he meant the world to his family. John became a father figure and mentor to many. He enjoyed hosting parties and get-togethers often. You always felt welcomed in his home and the door was always open. When you were in John’s presence, you immediately felt comfortable.”

Hernandez-Muhilly noted that Bocanegra’s extended family is now “99% vaccinated,” and she encouraged others to seek the Covid-19 vaccine if they haven’t done so and to remain vigilant about spreading the coronavirus.

Bocanegra’s family, like many others, remains “devastated” by John’s death, his daughter added.

“I hope you are lucky enough to (have known) my father,” Hernandez-Muhilly said at the Sept. 24 ceremony. “My father, like many, believed he would never die from Covid. It would be just a ‘bad flu’ like we all heard. Although he was careful the majority of the time, it took only one time being around someone positive” for him to become sick.

Raudel Almaraz, who died of Covid-19 in December 2020, may not have left any known blood relatives behind, but he had a tight-knit “family” who mourns his loss, said Christina Soto, Director of Programs at Community Homeless Solutions.

Almaraz had been living at the Community Homeless Solutions shelter for about three years, Soto said. After contracting Covid and becoming ill, he left the shelter for a nearby hospital Dec. 12. He died in the intensive care unit on Dec. 26, Soto said at the Sept. 24 ceremony.

Raudel Almaraz

Almaraz had previously worked at a taqueria in Hollister and “would always make us laugh” at the shelter, Soto said.

Soto thanked county officials for honoring the homeless shelter’s request to have Almaraz’ name embroidered on one of the white flags.

“Just because he was homeless does not mean he did not have a family,” Soto said. “The 30 people at the shelter and my team that works out there are his family… I want everyone to know that everyone does have a family. And even though we were not blood related to him, he was our family and he continues to be our family every single day.”  

Gonzales read a list of some of the names of San Benito County residents who have died of Covid-19, including those mentioned above. Many were represented by family, friends and loved ones at the memorial event.

Other names listed by Gonzales are Victor Torrez, Bertha Valencia, Olga Hernandez, Delfino Melendez, Joel Saldana, Yvonne McCarthy, Joe Martinez, Rosalie Polanco, Albert Torres, Tina Castelo, Elias Bedolla, Epimenio Morales, David Ramirez, Maria Ramirez, Alberto Cardona, Marylou Vizcarra, Domingo Gonzalez, Francisco Cortes, Purisima “Peejay” Conley and Robert Vaughn.

Hernandez-Muhilly said later that the ceremony and the crowd who attended had a kind of therapeutic impact.

“To see other families suffer and see what we were going through—it had a sense of bringing us together and realizing we’re not the only ones that lost our family member the way we did,” Hernandez-Muhilly said.