At Easter Mass, East Baltimore’s Latino community mourns Key Bridge workers

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As hundreds of Spanish-speaking worshippers packed the sanctuary of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church to celebrate the Easter promise of new life, Baltimore’s Latino community also mourned six deaths.

Amid signs of joy at the Highlandtown church — flowers wrapped in gold around the altar and little girls clutching stuffed rabbits in the pews — a sense of communal grief was present at Baltimore’s largest congregation with Spanish services Sunday. Six Latino construction workers are believed to have died Tuesday in the devastating collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

Ranging in age from their 20s to their late 40s, the members of the Brawner Builders crew had come from El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras seeking jobs and opportunities.

The loss of the six workers is felt acutely at this spiritual and cultural anchor for the Latino community, where many parishioners are fellow immigrants familiar with working hard in the United States for the benefit of future generations.

Authorities on Wednesday retrieved the bodies of 26-year-old Dorlian Ronial Castillo Cabrera and 35-year-old Alejandro Hernandez Fuentes from a truck in the Patapsco River. They are still searching for Miguel Luna, 49, Maynor Yessir Suavo Sandoval, 38, Jose Mynor Lopez, 35, and another man news outlets have identified as Carlos Hernandez.

Father Ako Walker, Sacred Heart’s pastor who spent time with the families of the victims last week, does not want their loss to be in vain.

“They paid what we call the highest price, the ultimate, with their lives, while they were working on the bridge so that everyone could pass safely,” he said in Spanish during Sunday’s Mass.

Walker said many people had asked him if the six workers attended his church. While they weren’t parishioners, Walker said, they were members of the Latino community.

Earlier this month, the same church hosted a funeral Mass for three relatives, two of them children, who died in a Baltimore Highlands fire. The Guatemalan family’s rowhouse lacked a smoke detector and a valid rental license.

Despite their country of origin or immigration status, they were linked together by love.

“The authorities should change the laws to protect these people. They can build a bridge again, but change the laws to guarantee the protection of immigrant workers,” he said in his homily. “No one should die like these dear brothers of ours.”

Walker said at the end of the service that collections from Masses next weekend will benefit the families of the six victims. The Baltimore City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs also is coordinating donations for the families. A prayer service and candlelight walk for the families will be held the evening of April 8 at Sacred Heart of Jesus.

When Walker asked whether anyone had known the fallen construction workers, only a handful of people responded.

One was Elba Yanez, a hairdresser at Le’s Barber Shop on Patapsco Avenue, who gave haircuts to Suavo Sandoval and Castillo Cabrera for years.

Suavo Sandoval was a good man, she said with tears in her eyes, as she switched between English and Spanish. They used to joke around about how she would pluck his eyebrows. Castillo Cabrera was sweet, too, she said.

“I’m feeling very upset,” she said. “It’s very sad.”

Melvin Ruiz of northeast Baltimore, who wore a red tie bearing the initials of the Knights of Columbus, also knew some of the workers: Mynor Lopez and Castillo Cabrera.

Castillo Cabrera, whose uncle works with Ruiz, was a kind friend who often volunteered to drive a friend without a car to the grocery store, Ruiz said.

Mynor Lopez was Ruiz’s co-worker at Marksman Construction, a Baltimore bridge repair and marine construction company until Mynor Lopez began working at Brawner about a year ago.

“He was a very hard worker, a very kind man. He always took care of his kids,” Ruiz said.

Ruiz also has worked on bridges, including the Key Bridge.

“That day when I heard the news I was shaking because it could have been one of those crews,” Ruiz said. Last week he fielded calls from people concerned that he too might have been on the bridge, which had always felt secure to him.

Other parishioners didn’t know the six workers personally but still felt the reverberations of the tragedy.

Olga Cruz lives near Johns Hopkins Hospital but is originally from El Salvador. A friend of her godfather back home knew Suavo Sandoval and had posted about his death on Facebook. “May they rest in peace,” his post said in Spanish.

Another regular parishioner, Vilma Cruz, expressed sadness for the deaths of the workers she hadn’t known. Parents like them sacrifice to support their families, she said in Spanish with her 3-year-old daughter, Kendra, at her side.

“Latinos come looking for a future in this country,” said Cruz, who is also from El Salvador. “Many people lose their lives.”

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(Baltimore Sun reporter Jonathan M. Pitts contributed to this article.)

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