Elsie Soto and the Story of Hart Island

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BCC student Elsie Soto was nine years old when her 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, the family was forced to bury him in an unmarked grave on Hart Island in The Bronx, better known as Potter’s Field.

Elsie and her family couldn’t visit Hart Island, which was run by the Department of Corrections and prisoners buried the bodies at that time.

She told The Bronx Times: “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.” In addition, she was interviewed by the New York Times for her efforts to establish a memorial on Hart Island.


In 2019, the New York City Council passed legislation to turn Hart Island into a public park. Elsie 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, she petitioned Mayor 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 her petition and the memorial stone was placed on Hart Island on June 5.

Elsie Soto with memorial stoneElsie said: “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.”

Her advocacy work led her to pursue a degree in public health at BCC. She will graduate in the Fall of 2023.


Elsie held a bereavement walk and vigil on May 28 on Hart Island to commemorate her achievements.

See Elise’s interview here.

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