Elsie Soto and the story of Potter’s Field

Elsie Soto with the memorial stone that will be placed at Hart Island to recognize those who are buried there.

I was nine years old when my dad died of AIDS in 1993.

Faced with the fact that many funeral homes would not take AIDS victims or charge exorbitant prices to embalm them, my family was forced to bury the father of six children in an unmarked grave on Hart Island in The Bronx, better known as Potter’s Field.  

My family and I couldn’t visit Hart Island, which was run by the Department of Corrections at that time and used prisoners to bury bodies.

Consumed with grief over my dad’s death, I vowed that someday I would find a way to honor him and the millions of New Yorkers buried in unmarked graves on Hart Island.

New York cares. We care about our New Yorkers. We don’t just abandon them. We need something to signify that they are not forgotten.

Elsie Soto’s father, Norberto Soto, and her mother, Ada Matos.

In 2019, the New York City Council passed legislation to turn Hart Island into a public park. I saw this as an opportunity to place a memorial stone on Hart Island that would honor those buried there, particularly those who died of AIDS or Covid-19.

As the NYC coordinator of the Hart Island Tombstone Coalition, I petitioned Mayor Eric Adams to accept a four-foot-wide slab of smooth granite with the words “Global Pandemic Touchstone for Humanity” carved in the front. The Peace Abby Foundation created this memorial that uses a stone to pay respect to people buried in unmarked graves who have experienced prejudice or opposition in their lives.

On March 14, Mayor Adams accepted my petition. The memorial stone will be placed on Hart Island on June 5.

Read more about Soto’s journey in this 2018 New York Times article.

Mayor Adams is truly a mayor of the people. By accepting this memorial stone on Hart Island, he has demonstrated compassion to all the families who have loved ones buried there. They can now visit the island and grieve. This memorial stone will help in this process.

My advocacy work led me to pursue a degree in public health at Bronx Community College. I will graduate in fall 2023.

I plan to hold a bereavement walk and vigil on May 28 on Hart Island to commemorate my achievements.

About the Author

Elsie Soto
Elsie Soto is a student at Bronx Community College (New York) studying public health. She has spent the last five years advocating to recognize and eliminate the stigma associated with loved ones buried on Hart Island.