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On Our Minds is the name of KERA's mental health news initiative. The station began focusing on the issue in 2013, after the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Coverage is funded in part by the Donna Wilhelm Family Fund and Cigna.

Juarez Woman Crafts Memory Bears For Grieving Families During Pandemic

Eréndira Guerrero sits at her sewing machine, holding part of a teddy bear she is making. Her stuffed bears sit on a shelf to her right.
Luis Torres
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Artisan Eréndira Guerrero sews pieces for the leg of a teddy bear in her Juárez studio on Jan. 11. Guerrero’s clients are families who have lost a loved one, many of them to COVID-19; they provide an article of clothing for her to make into a bear.

Every time Gina Ramos looks at her teddy bear, she remembers her father. The bear is a deep indigo color, made from one of her father’s shirts. “It’s a blue shirt I had given him on his birthday. His last birthday,” Ramos said. Her father Jose Womhar Ramos Hernandez, 62, died in December.

A dark blue teddy bear sits on a chair. Around the bear's neck is a heart pendant with a picture in it. There is also a prayer stitched on a square of cloth and sewn to the bear.
Courtesy of Gina Ramos
A memory bear at Gina Ramos' home in Ciudad Juárez. The bear is made from the shirt her father wore on his last birthday.

Claudia Araceli Ramirez Pereira’s bear is blue and white plaid with a touch of brown, made from her father’s favorite winter jacket. “This year he didn’t get to wear it,” said Ramirez. Her father, 70-year old Lorenzo Ramirez, died in October.

The women have found comfort in their “memory bears. ”

The memory bears stitched together by Eréndira Guerrero, in her small home sewing room are custom keepsakes for the families of some of those who’ve died. “It’s a little bit of their essence from the clothing of their loved ones,” Guerrero said. The items include “shirts, blouses, pajamas, team uniforms” selected by a relative to remember someone who died.

The hum of her sewing machine filles her home as Guerrero tries to keep up with demand during the pandemic. So far, she’s made more than 100 memory bears and has a has a growing waiting list of orders. She’s one of several seamstresses stitching memory and encourages other women who need to work from home during the pandemic.

Guerrero learned to sew from her grandmother and mother. She started making traditional Mexican cloth dolls dressed in folklorico outfits and later branched out to include teddy bears. She crafted memory bears before the pandemic but the “mass deaths” from COVID created a need to “close the circle” for many families in mourning.

She’s seen the look on the faces of relatives as memories come flooding back when they get their bear and hold it for the first time. “It’s a tremendously moving moment. This is such a powerful and impactful scene,” said Guerrero.

She sheds tears when people pick up a bear but the pandemic means, “I can’t hug or console them” Guerrero said.

Jose Womhar Ramos Hernandez, wearing a dark blue shirt, sits at a restaurant with a slice of cake bearing one lit candle.
Courtesy Gina Ramos
Jose Womhar Ramos Hernandez celebrating his last birthday. His daughter had a “memory bear” made with the blue shirt to remember this happy moment.

But the bears get plenty of hugs from her customs. “I hug my bear every night,” said Gina Ramos. Her 62-year-old father was hospitalized following a heart attack. She could not be with him as died because of COVID-19 restrictions at the hospital.

Ramos treasures the bear made by Guerrero from the blue shirt her father wore when he blew out the candles on his last birthday cake “She gave me back a little piece of my father so I could hug him, say good bye to him, say all all the things I didn’t have a chance to say to him,” she said.

The 26-year old image consultant in Ciudad Juarez, saw her father for the last time on her birthday Dec. 13. He died three days later. Her father’s memory bear not only provides comfort but inspiration.

“My father with his love taught me to keep striving. Even though this is hard and breaks my heart, I will keeping moving forward,” said Ramos, her voice cracking.

Ramirez also felt a strong connection with her memory bear the first time she held it.

When I had the bear in my hands, I held it like a person. I felt like it could see me, hear me because of the characteristics of the face,” she said.

Ramirez wanted a bear to “deposit her pain” after her father unexpectedly died of COVID-19 in October. She said after she managed to get him into a hospital she felt a sense of relief. He gestured he was fine when he was given oxygen. But 45 minutes later the husband and father of six daughters died.

“He did not look that sick. We did not expect it,” said the 46-year-old sales manager for a cosmetics company. The lack of mourning rituals and a proper funeral made it difficult to accept the loss. She said she fell into a deep depression and cried often. Her therapist recommended she find a way to connect with her father’s memory. She decided to get a memory bear.

The bear made from the cloth from her father’s favorite plaid jacket, was a sounding board for the things she didn’t get to say to comfort and reassure her father in those final moments “to say good bye and tell him that we are here taking care of my mother, that he can continue on his path and not to worry,” Ramirez said.

Her memory bear helped Ramirez accept her loss.

“Now, when I look at my bear I’m conscious of the reality my father is gone but I have his memory. And every time I see the bear, it’s a comfort.”