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The pandemic has claimed around 12,000 North Carolinian lives since March 24, 2020. To honor them, we're telling eight life stories – a cross-section of our Carolina neighbors – that ended too soon due to COVID.

Yoshi Soto Morales, First NC Child To Die From COVID-19, Lived Life To The Fullest

a digital illustration of Yoshi Soto Morales
Natalia Polanco
Yoshi Soto Morales was a passionate 8-year-old who loved animals, trips to the beach and playing in the snow.

Aurea Yolotzin Soto Morales, known to her friends and family as Yoshi, was a fun-loving, studious girl. Born and raised in Durham, she attended second-grade at Creekside Elementary and at 8 years old, had a long list of interests.

Yoshi smiles for a picture
Courtesy of Araceli Morales Martinez
Yoshi smiles for a picture

She loved to travel — especially to the beach. She loved Panera and Starbucks. She loved Takis, chocolates and lemon tarts.

Her deep love for animals meant that Yoshi was a dedicated vegetarian and wouldn't eat meat from a young age.

"She didn’t like the mistreatment of animals… She was very pretty, very sweet, my very liberal girl. Very explosive," said her mother, Araceli Morales Martinez, in Spanish. "She did not stop at anything she wanted to do."

She was particularly enamored with cats, and when the family got a cat she was excited, though they soon learned her mother was allergic to cats and had to give it to another family.

“And so I told her, you have to choose — do you want the cat or do you want your mom?” Morales Martinez joked. “She said the cat… Then I told her the cat was sick and we were taking the cat to the hospital, and she asked if the cat was doing well at the hospital and I said, poor little girl, that cat is never coming back.”

Yoshi had talked about wanting to be a vet or veterinary assistant. She even picked a favorite endangered animal species, the red panda. On a memorial her mother made in the living room following her death in June, her stuffed red panda named Avocado sits beside objects from her life.

Also in the memorial are photos and drawings she made, memories of their beloved daughter and sister, and a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Araceli Morales Martinez looks through a box of photos of Yoshi, notes and cards from classmates and friends they sent after she passed.
Cole del Charco
Araceli Morales Martinez looks through a box of photos of her daughter Yoshi, notes and cards from classmates and friends they sent after she passed.

In addition to the beach, Yoshi loved the snow. One time her mother took a video of her enthusiastically making a snow angel. Her father, Salvador Soto, says that she probably liked the beach, and Florida, more.

Morales Martinez decorated the living room table after her daughter's passing in June 2020 with some of her favorite things, and adds different flowers and objects for special holidays and Yoshi's birthday.
Jenseon Morales
Areceli Morales Martinez decorated the living room table after her daughter Yoshi's passing in June 2020 with some of her favorite things. She adds different flowers and objects for special holidays and Yoshi's birthday.

Jenseon, Yoshi's older sibling, remembers a time when the family was driving back to Durham from the mountains.

"One of her favorite songs was Du Hast and she would always be head-banging to that one. She said, 'Don’t tell anyone,'" Jenseon remembered. "And one day the song came up and she was head-banging in the back seat and she got embarrassed when we saw her headbanging, and so we just turned it up and we started headbanging with her... I think it’s kind of funny because you don’t expect a child — especially an 8-year-old — dancing to heavy metal."

Sometimes, Yoshi would pretend not to understand Spanish, and her mother says she preferred not to speak it. Instead, she wanted to speak English, and be as 'American' as possible. She even went as far as adopting the nickname "Yoshi," short for her middle name Yolotzin, an Aztec word for little heart of gold.

"She would always say, ‘I’m not Yolotzin, I’m not Yolotzin. I’m Yoshi," her father chuckled. "I’m unique."

She didn’t complain about her name, she just liked Yoshi better.

When Soto thinks of her, he remembers his daughter’s strength.

"I'll always remember Yoshi as a strong girl, smart... She was my only daughter. She was always very much a child of God and Jesus. I will remember her as an angel, a star, alive."

The family did what they could to avoid getting COVID-19, but they all contracted the virus in June. Everyone else got better quickly, but Yoshi began to react badly. After several days in the hospital, she died.

The Soto Morales Family at Disney
Soto Morales family
The Soto Morales family on one of their annual trips to Disney World to celebrate Yoshi (front) and Jenseon's birthdays.

Having a normal funeral during the pandemic last June wasn’t possible. So they reached out to Durham Public Schools to see if they could hold a small service outside at Creekside Elementary.

Lots of families and friends from school came by in their cars. They had a minister and spoke and prayed in remembrance.

They also planted a tree at the school — a Japanese maple with white leaves that blossom in the spring. And when they planted it, they put a piece of Yoshi's hair in the dirt.

"We did plant a part of her," Jenseon said. "Within that, I believe that she will continue to grow even without us seeing her physically, she will continue growing spiritually with the tree alongside."

Jenseon says when she thinks of Yoshi, she remembers her strength.

"I think of my daughter every day. It doesn't feel real."
Araceli Morales Martinez

"She was always powerful within everything. I knew she had a battle in the hospital. She always had a battle with me," Jenseon said. "But the thing is, I always saw her as a strong warrior, and she will always be a strong warrior as I remember her."

Yoshi's passing has been terribly hard on the family.

For her father, who holds the stuffed red panda Avocado and pets its fur as he speaks. For Jenseon, who doesn't have a little sister to wake up to, and who could not be at the hospital for Yoshi’s final moments or to say goodbye. And for her mother, who has a common and understandable vision. When she’s sitting in her living room, she has a feeling that her daughter Yoshi will one day just walk in the door, as if nothing has happened.

"I think of my daughter every day. It doesn't feel real. That one day, she will come to the door and say, 'Mami I've arrived, I went for a walk'," Morales Martinez said. "I still can't believe that my daughter isn't with us."

Yoshi plays in the snow.
Courtesy Araceli Morales Martinez
Yoshi plays in the snow.

Cole del Charco is an audio producer and writer based in Durham. He's made stories for public radio's All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Marketplace. Before joining Due South, he spent time as a freelance journalist, an education and daily news reporter for WUNC, and a podcast producer for WFAE in Charlotte.
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