Hidalgo County chose to honor what seems like the innumerous victims of COVID-19 with the launch of a billboard campaign that pays tribute to their memories, as the grief of families who’ve lost loved ones to the disease comes into greater focus during a time like Christmas.

A flashing billboard displays a collage of picture of those who dead from COVID-19 in Hidalgo county along Hwy 281 on Thursday, Dec. 24, 2020, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

The campaign, which depicts the faces of those who died due to the virus, puts a face to the casualties and the grief incurred by a region still reeling from the loss of life.

The efforts began in earnest when county residents were asked to submit pictures of their departed loved ones prior to Thanksgiving. One of those individuals who responded to the campaign was Alma Paek, a realtor from Mission.

Paek, the oldest of six siblings, saw a tweet asking for photos for the public memorial and felt that it would be a suitable way to honor her late mother, Rosa Maria Gonzalez, who died Aug. 22.

She described her mother as the life of the party, someone who was always making jokes and always had a smile on her face.

“She’d been in the hospital for about a month-and-a-half,” Paek said. “Initially she went in, and then she was released, and then she was rushed back two days after. The second time she went in, she didn’t come out.”

The night before Gonzalez died, Paek turned to her Bible.

She opened the holy book and came across Psalm 46:5, which reads: “God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day.”

“At that time, I knew that she would be healed,” Paek said. “I just didn’t know if she would be healed to stay with us or go to Heaven. Sure enough, the following morning, I received a phone call that she had passed.”

As of Thursday, there had been 2,176 COVID-19 related deaths in Hidalgo County alone. And with daily updates from the county reporting the rising number of COVID-19 cases and fatalities, Paek said the campaign was a way of humanizing those who’ve died as a result of the virus.

“It makes me feel like she wasn’t just a number— that all of those lost lives aren’t just numbers,” Paek said. “Of course, on a daily basis, we get those updates with the numbers of how many new cases and how many have unfortunately passed. To actually put a face to that, it humanizes them.

“You realize that it’s an actual person, somebody’s mother, somebody’s aunt, somebody’s grandmother. It brings me, not peace, but comfort to know that they’ll be remembered by others.”

Paek had already seen and shared the image that would be posted on the billboards by Wednesday, but she had not yet visited any of the three billboard locations — U.S. Expressway 83 east of Bridge Street in Weslaco; U.S. Expressway 281 north of Business 281 in Edinburg; and Expressway 83 west of 29th Street in McAllen.

She said that she expected her visit to the billboard to be bittersweet. That time came on the morning of Christmas Eve, as she clutched a portrait of her beloved mother.

“I know I’m going to cry my eyes out,” Paek said the evening before visiting the billboard in Edinburg. “It will be bittersweet. I’ll have mixed emotions. I’ll be happy to see her up there. It’s unfortunate that she is on there. It’d be better if she wasn’t on there and still be with us, but I’ll be comforted to know that she’s being acknowledged — her along with everyone else.”