'Sadness and rage': Obituary for man who died of COVID-19 blames politicians for his death
PHOENIX – Mourners stood scattered among grave stones, faces masked and down-turned, giving a wide radius around the white casket where Deacon Jose Garza stood and eulogized Mark Anthony Urquiza.
Urquiza died on June 30 at the age of 65 from complications due to COVID-19, leaving behind his daughter, Kristin, his life partner, Brenda, and the entire community of Tolleson where he was born and raised.
His obituary, which was published in the Arizona Republic on Wednesday, remembers him for his "infectious energy, strong will, and yes, stubbornness."
It also laid blame for his death.
"Mark, like so many others, should not have died from COVID-19. His death is due to the carelessness of the politicians who continue to jeopardize the health of brown bodies through a clear lack of leadership, refusal to acknowledge the severity of this crisis, and inability and unwillingness to give clear and decisive direction on how to minimize risk," it reads.
His daughter and daughter-in-law are "channeling our sadness and rage into building an awareness campaign so fewer families are forced to endure this," it reads.
COVID-19 robbed Urquiza of his life – and the funeral Kristin Urquiza thought her father deserved.
“The amount of people that wanted to be here but couldn’t is overwhelming,” she said. “It absolutely breaks my heart to know that this man who was so beloved by so many people for 65 years isn’t able to get a proper send-off.”
Many of the several dozen in attendance who knew Urquiza since childhood stuck around Holy Cross Cemetery in Avondale in the hot summer breeze after Garza concluded, seeking shade and swapping stories and photographs about the departed.
The pallbearers waited until everyone dispersed, however, to lower the casket into the ground beside his parents' graves, since new precautionary measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 have not only limited attendance to 50 but also restricted funeral-goers from witnessing the burial.
This grief at her father’s death and inadequate farewell, as well as her anger at what she believes were policy failures that directly caused his unnecessary death, compelled Kristin Urquiza to invite Gov. Doug Ducey to the funeral. He had not responded to the invitation by Wednesday morning.
She had wanted to show Ducey that the more than 2,000 Arizonans who have lost their lives to the new coronavirus are not just numbers.
“They are people like my dad who have entire families and communities behind them that are mourning,” she said.
“I feel as if he was robbed,” she said, and that he was not the only one.
'The west Valley mayor' and the life of the party
Handfuls of people mingled – 6 feet or more apart – around Urquiza's grave site, sharing memories of the man they fondly referred to as "Black Jack" for his lifelong love of the eponymous card game.
Many of them had known him for decades, having grown up in Tolleson together. Even after marrying his high school sweetheart and moving to nearby Maryvale to raise his daughter and work as a quality assurance inspector in the aerospace industry, Urquiza had remained close with the community of his childhood.
"He was just another brother, another brother from another mother," said Larry Tritz, who had met Urquiza when he was a track star at Tolleson Union High School. They learned to raise honeybees together, Tritz remembered.
Many remembered Urquiza for his boundless energy for fun and for life, always inviting his friends and brothers to the bar, a concert, a sports game, or a NASCAR race.
He was the life of the party, throwing massive celebrations every year for his birthday, said Garry Fendrick, who knew Urquiza for 35 years. When he sang karaoke, Fendrick grinned and recounted, “he wasn’t very good, but he always sold it.”
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His daughter remembered how her father stayed close with his friends from Tolleson throughout her childhood and into his 60s.
“He was so committed to the community, to his community," she said. “One of the things this tragedy exposed is the incredibly huge heart and generosity my dad had for anyone in his life."
Then, with a laugh, she added, "My father was kind of like the west Valley mayor in a way.”
"I’m surprised about this show up," said John Limon, peering around the cemetery at the around 50 people who had made it to his childhood friend's funeral. "But with this thing going on, I can see why not everyone showed up.”
Rick Urquiza agreed that, if not for the pandemic, his older brother would have filled the chapel and cemetery to the brim.
“He went out of this world too fast,” he said softly and tearfully. “I’m still in shock.”
'Gov. Ducey has blood on his hands'
Kristin Urquiza found out her father was dying on a drive to Phoenix from her home in San Francisco.
"I had to take the phone call at a gas station on the side of the highway that his heart was failing,” she said. That was how she spoke to her father for the last time: with him sedated and alone except for the nurse who held up the phone so that his family, over FaceTime, could be with him virtually as he took his last breaths.
Urquiza became ill on June 11 and tested positive for COVID-19 the next day. Five days later, he told his life partner, Brenda, that he needed to go to the hospital. He was kept on a high oxygen treatment for 10 days, his condition steadily declining, before he was moved to the ICU and put on a ventilator. He was gone four days later, on June 30. He had no underlying health conditions, according to his daughter.
“I’m still in shock. I can’t believe it," said Brenda Urquiza, who had been with Mark for 48 years. They dated in high school for three years, then were married for over 20, and eventually divorced but were still living together in Maryvale for the last 10.
"He had more life to live. It’s just too early for him, too, too early," she said. "It makes me sad that he doesn’t get to be here and see Kristin, all that she’s gonna do, and his nephews and nieces and his brothers and sisters.”
Brenda had also tested positive for COVID-19 but has fortunately experienced little to no symptoms.
While she doesn’t know how exactly he contracted the virus, Kristin Urquiza said that she does know that her father trusted Ducey's advice and sheltered in place during his first stay-at-home order, which started in March.
When Ducey allowed businesses to open back up on May 15, she said, “my dad was completely under the impression that it was safe to resume activities as normal.”
Her mother added, "His friends called, 'come on, we're going to have a few drinks' or 'we're going to do karaoke.' You know, he just couldn't stay away."
Ducey closed bars again on June 29, a day before Mark Urquiza died.
"Dad’s death was completely unnecessary and wouldn’t have happened had we acted quickly and swiftly in a way that prioritized public health,” his daughter said.
She also said she is "enraged" by the disproportionate effects the pandemic is having on communities of color around the country.
Tolleson is majority Hispanic and working class, as is Maryvale. Urquiza's father was an immigrant from Durango, Mexico, and his mother was a first-generation Mexican American.
Recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows that hospitalization rates for Black and brown people are as much as five times higher than for white people. They are also more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people.
Meanwhile, Maryvale has seen some of the worst infection rates but least opportunities for COVID-19 testing in the city.
She said this is why she extended an invitation to the funeral to Gov. Ducey, whose office had received the letter, according to the Fedex tracking website, but did not respond. She wanted him to witness firsthand what she believed was the result of his lack of leadership.
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"I believe that our elected officials have the power and the responsibility to keep their constituents safe,” she said. "I think that Ducey’s got blood on his hands.”
Ducey on Thursday issued an executive order further limiting restaurant capacity for dine-in service to below 50%.
"This is a process of risk reduction," Ducey said. "It's about making the best decision possible to reduce your risk of contracting this virus, to reduce your risk of spreading the virus and especially spreading the virus to someone that's most vulnerable."
Marked by COVID vigil at Capitol
Following her father's funeral, Kristin Urquiza traveled to downtown Phoenix, accompanied by her mother and her partner, Christine Keeves, to set up a candlelit vigil outside the Arizona Capitol.
She posted the event for the "Vigil & Ofrenda for those lost to COVID" on her Facebook page, Marked by COVID, which she had created on Sunday "in honor of her father … to drive a culture change around COVID prevention to save lives."
"Governor Ducey has blood on his hands," Kristin Urquiza repeated to the press. "That blood is the blood of my father and nearly 2,000 other Arizonans that have died so far."
She also said that her father deserved more than to die alone apart from his family, and to not be able to have the entire cemetery filled with his friends.
"If I can run a safe funeral, this governor can run a safe state!" she said.
In attendance was state Rep. Raquel Terán, whose district includes part of Maryvale and who said that she is there to be in solidarity with the Urquiza family.
"Righteous anger," she said regarding Kristin Urquiza's statement to Ducey. "There needs to be responsibility. … That's why I'm here, because we need accountability on all levels."
Kristin Urquiza is using her grief and fury to draw attention to the state and, she hopes, effect change. She has told her father's story to NBC News and raised more than $30,000 with a GoFundMe to cover his funeral costs and start a campaign to spread information about COVID-19.
She said that, through her anger and pain, she is hoping that something positive can come out of this.
"I will not allow him to be just another number, another death," she said. "I am calling on people across the state as well as people across the country to come forward with your story to put faces and names to the lives that we have lost so that not only Gov. Ducey but the Trump administration takes this crisis as a crisis so that there are no more deaths."
Follow Emily Wilder on Twitter @vv1lder