Holding the last letter her father wrote her before his death in 1993, Elsie Soto said his words continue to inspire her.
“He knew that he just was not going to be here for this and this was what he was leaving me,” said Soto.
As a student in public health at Bronx Community College, Soto has also taken on the cause of trying to bring dignity and honor to those, like her father, who are buried on Hart Island, recalling the pain and stigma her mother and family faced when he passed away and the cemetery once known as Potter’s Field became their only option to lay him to rest.
“Because of the negative stigma behind having HIV/AIDS and dying of it, when she reached out to funeral homes they just wouldn’t accept him,” said Soto. “Or they would charge an exorbitant amount of money.”
The graves at Hart Island are unmarked and gravesite visits are allowed twice a month. Since 1869, it’s been the city’s final resting place for people who died indigent or whose remains went unclaimed.
Soto believes families deserve a better way to honor their lost loved ones.
“I always wanted to help get a stone or something to memorialize all of those people that have been buried on Hart Island and I felt like it was necessary to changing the narrative,” said Soto, who helped to get clearance from the Adams administration to organize the placement of a memorial stone on Hart Island. It’s called the Global Pandemic Touchstone for Humanity, paying respect to those lost during public health crises like AIDS and COVID-19.
“I saw so many similarities with those who suffered HIV/AIDS and then suffering from COVID-19,” said Soto.
It’s her effort to help bring more reverence and serenity to Hart Island as she does her best to make her father proud.
"I hope that he is proud,” said Soto. "I hope that he sees us working hard here on Earth, trying to help other people keep their loved ones memory alive and let them know that just because they died of a certain disease or because they’re buried on Hart Island, [that] doesn’t make them less than."