Flores, luces y memorias luminosas

Joseph Rodriguez is one of those honored in The Collegian’s digital ofrenda, which helps readers celebrate Día de los Muertos
Joseph Rodriguez was born on July 18, 2002, and passed away in a car accident on July 24, 2021.
Joseph Rodriguez was born on July 18, 2002, and passed away in a car accident on July 24, 2021.
Courtesy of Annalisa Madrigal

After attending a Society of Professional Journalists conference with The Collegian, I was immediately inspired to write a Día de los Muertos story with my own twist.

The first thing that came to my mind when the speaker from USC brought up the way her newsroom did a piece on the tradition was honoring my beloved childhood friend who passed away.

I instantly knew it would mean a lot to me to do the same for similarly situated people of the Fresno State community. The result is a digital ofrenda flip book compiled of eight submissions from the Fresno State community who also wanted to commemorate their loved ones.

Click on the flipbook above to see contributions from other Collegian readers.
Art direction by Wyatt Bible / The Collegian

On July 25, 2021, I got a debilitating call at around 2 a.m. from my cousin Alexa Villa that I still remember to this day.

“Jiselle… Joseph’s gone. Can you come pick me up? I’m at his house,” she said, barely uttering the words and sniffling in between sentences. Frozen and at a loss for words, I tried to ask what she meant. “He’s dead.”

Only six days after his 19th birthday, Joseph Rodriguez passed away in a car accident alongside another friend from high school, Alissa Campos.

Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a holiday with indigenous roots celebrated by Central America, Latin America and the United States. The two-day holiday is traditionally celebrated by families creating and decorating ofrenda (offering) altars with bright, yellow-orange marigold flowers, photos of the deceased, and favorite foods and drinks of those being commemorated.

The traditions of Día de los Muertos are said to be a bridge between the living world and the spiritual world, celebrating life by encouraging the souls of departed loved ones to come home during a time of prayer, remembrance and sharing a meal all together again. This year the holiday will take place on Nov. 1-2.

Joseph Rodriguez poses for a photo as a model in a photoshoot. (Courtesy of Annalisa Madrigal)

On the night Joseph died, I drove two blocks to where he lived to be greeted with a street full of cars and people scattered sitting along the sidewalk and in the driveway, mourning the devastating loss.

“To see an officer on my door camera, and then to run to the door and see him holding my precious son’s things in a clear bag, no words had to be spoken. I just screamed and lost every feeling I had in my body,” said Annalisa Madrigal, his mother. “I relive that day every morning. My heart is shattered into a million pieces. I couldn’t help him. I couldn’t do anything for my baby boy. I will never be the same person. A piece of me left with him that night.”

His mother said she always told him when he wasn’t with her and going somewhere: “I have one Joseph and you’re irreplaceable, so please be careful and make good choices,” in which he’d respond with “I know mom.”

I met Joseph for the first time in fourth grade and we proceeded to go to the same schools all the way through high school. From playing basketball together at recess to at one point being part of my family, he always had the brightest smile, eye-catching outfits and the most infectious laugh.

He was one of the most genuine, down to earth people I had ever met. People might’ve deemed him one of the “popular kids” based on assumption; he was, but his personality was the opposite. Anytime I saw him, he was always adamant about asking how I was doing, he’d ask if I had money for lunch, we’d chat about music and he’d randomly check in if we ever lost contact.

Christian Zapata, one of Joseph’s best friends, said that they first met when the two were around 9-years-old, developing a stronger friendship through school and youth sports as the years went on. Zapata said over time they formed a larger friend group that is still lasting to this day.

“It’s hard to choose a favorite memory when we’re talking about Joseph. Every time he was around was always a joyous moment. Anyone who knew Joseph, knows that he’ll never fail to put a smile on your face and how contagious his laugh was,” Zapata said.

Joseph loved Mediterranean food, Indian food, McDonald’s (specifically two spicy McChickens, a medium fries and large Powerade), Robertito’s asada fries, Arizona Arnold Palmer Tea, sweet tea and sour candy, according to his mother.

She said he had aspirations of becoming a business owner, hoping to design his own brand and open up a store. His passion for fashion ran deep with a love for clothes, shoes and jewelry, and he’d always help others with trending styles or looks.

Joseph Rodriguez passed away at 19-years-old, leaving a lasting impression on his family and loved ones. (Courtesy of Annalisa Madrigal)

Villa, who was also his high school sweetheart, said although the couple eventually grew apart, she became a different person because of his passing.

“When I got the news, my world got so weird and so dull because he was an earth angel,” Villa said. “He had such an old soul, and he just made sure everyone around him was good and OK. He was such a great son, a brother, a friend and even a stranger – he was just such a loving person.”

Villa said she really misses him and finds pieces of Joseph within the smallest moments of life now.

“I could be feeling some type of way and a butterfly passes by. Or, I sometimes think [of] what he might say in certain situations… and the color blue. It’s just a lot of little things,” she said. “He’s such an inspiration to me. Some stuff about me is kind of inspired by him. I’m just such a changed person.”

Villa isn’t the only one who echoed the same sentiment of missing him and trying to honor his life every day. Zapata said the two bonded over car culture, music and fashion, so the way his friend group commemorates him only made sense.

“Since Joseph’s passing, our friends and I each have a sticker on our cars reading ‘LongLiveJoseph,’ ” Zapata said. “One thing I’d like to say that I am grateful for since Joseph’s passing, is the relationships that I have developed with his family, and many others who shared a common love for Joseph.”

Although two years have passed, for his mother and family things will never be the same.

“We will never be OK. We feel his absence every second, but we talk about him constantly, and I share on Facebook daily. I don’t ever want anyone to forget my beautiful boy,” she said.

His mother said he touched the lives of many people in his 19 years of life. She appreciates when friends or strangers reach out to her and share how Joseph impacted their lives.

“My son was a[n organ] donor and helped so many. He was always so generous, positive and unforgettable. I was so blessed and honored to be his mama,” she said.

A week before his passing, I was driving home, and around the corner from my house, Joseph was riding a bike with a few friends.

“Look, it’s Jiselle,” he said to them and pointed. I waved at him through the window. That was the last time I ever saw him.

This story is a testament of only a few of the lives Joseph played an elemental part in. Día de los Muertos is a time to honor and celebrate the deceased, and this is what I hope to have accomplished for a dear friend whom I miss dearly.

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  • N

    Nayeli MNov 1, 2023 at 11:57 pm

    Long Live JBAE
    love this sooo much

  • S

    Sandeep MadrigalNov 1, 2023 at 11:17 pm

    Thank you for this article our family appreciates it so much and you did a wonderful job describing our sweet angel💙