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In the Rio Grande Valley, Death Has Become a Family Affair

Christmas will be quieter in the Texas borderlands, where aunts and uncles, grandparents and adult siblings often live under the same roof. That closeness let the coronavirus ravage families.

By Edgar Sandoval

EDINBURG, Texas — Days after her Thanksgiving feast was prepared, served and eaten, Maribel Rodriguez tried to muster the will to unpack the tree, lights and decorations of boisterous Christmases past.

Instead she found herself praying a rosary over the three wooden urns containing the ashes of her husband, her mother and an aunt, all of whom had shared a home with her.

“My husband was the one who used to set up the tree and dressed up as Santa every year,” Ms. Rodriguez said in a rural section of Edinburg, Texas, her voice echoing around the hacienda-style home that is emptier now. “I can’t get myself to do it. I end up crying before I touch any of the ornaments.”

Her husband, Domingo Davila, 65, tested positive for the coronavirus in September after undergoing a leg amputation. Within days, Ms. Rodriguez caught the virus, too, along with her mother, Maria Guadalupe Rodriguez, and aunt, Mirthala Ramirez.

Ms. Rodriguez recovered but the others did not. In all, she has lost seven relatives to the virus since the pandemic took hold in the Rio Grande Valley. “This virus didn’t kill me,” she said, “but it sure took my life.”

After a devastating summer along the border region where family gatherings known as pachangas accelerated the spread of the virus, many families have had two, three or more casualties per household.

The death rate from the virus peaked at 5 percent and remains high in El Valle, as the mostly Latino population calls the sprawling valley that spans the Mexican border, representing at least 2,168 funerals. Nationally, the virus has killed less than 2 percent of those known to be infected.

Health officials blame a combination of poverty, lack of access to health care and a close-knit culture for the widespread infection within family clusters.

Editors’ Picks “Our reality is that our people are the sickest and we can’t stay away from each other,” said Dr. Ivan Melendez, the health authority for Hidalgo County. “If you compare it to the rest of the country, the pandemic has been much more intense here.”

There are reasons the virus has been especially lethal in communities here: It is common for multigeneration families to live under the same roof — making social distancing nearly impossible — and older relatives tend to suffer from chronic pre-existing medical conditions such as obesity and diabetes.

“From the beginning we started seeing a lot of people being admitted, along with their sisters, their uncles, their abuelas,” Dr. Melendez said.

The situation was worse in the summer, when there were up to 60 deaths a day. But health officials have seen a troubling surge following the Halloween and Thanksgiving holidays. They are expecting another spike after Christmas and New Year celebrations. About 2,500 people are actively battling the coronavirus, according to county data.

The statistics became personal for Ms. Rodriguez. Waiting for a holiday that has always been a time of celebration in her family, she caught herself unsettled by the loud clack of her shoes on the porcelain floor in place of the sounds of laughter and cheer.

With three housemates deceased, Ms. Rodriguez, 53, has decided to put the spacious two-story house up for sale. She quit her job as a hospice nurse because the illness had taken a toll on her body, she said. She has been scraping by with donations and by selling tamales. The real estate agent told her she must clear the rooms of her family’s belongings, and she steeled herself as she turned the knob to her mother’s bedroom for the first time since she died. There were her clothes on the bed; her jewelry on the dresser; the Betty Boop handbag she had asked for as an early Christmas gift.

She surveyed the room and held back tears, “I open the room and I want to see her here,” she said.

Once the microscopic killer found its way in, it took as many lives as it could, she said.

Back in the spring she came home from a long shift to find her husband, Mr. Davila, who had long suffered from a lung ulcer and other illnesses, complaining of a spider bite on his right leg. In the next few months it infected the bone, she said, but he rejected going to a hospital because he feared getting the virus.

She tried to respect his wishes. But by late August, his leg had deteriorated and needed to be amputated, doctors told her. Mr. Davila tested negative for the virus before and after he had surgery, she said, but developed symptoms after he arrived at a rehabilitation facility.

“He was cold and he told me he was having fever,” she said. She brought him a sweater to keep him warm. Mr. Davila became so ill that doctors told her she could bring him home. “They told me there was nothing more they could do,” she said. He died on Sept 15.

It had been a cruel demise for a man who was once known as the most popular dancer at the local club where they met. On their first date, she said, he was asked to dance by so many women that she almost walked out. After that day, he only danced with her. Numerous photos of the happy couple, him in a cowboy hat, her in a sparkling dress, still decorate the house.

Days after he died, Ms. Rodriguez developed a cough that would not go away. It felt like an icy hand was squeezing her organs. When she collapsed into bed, her mother dragged her walker to her room to check on her. “Are you OK, mija?” she said.

It did not take long for her mother, 80, and aunt, 77, to contract the virus. They were taken within days of each other to DHR Health in Edinburg, gasping for air. The sisters, who had spent nearly every hour of every day next to each other, were intubated in the same intensive care unit, Ms. Rodriguez said. Her mother died the night of Oct. 12. Her aunt followed less than 24 hours later.

She had barely cremated the three of them when the phone rang. The virus had killed four other relatives in the area. “How can this virus, something so small you can’t even see, take so much from you?” she said.

Families up and down the valley have experienced the same thing since this summer.

The virus found its way into the Garcia home in San Juan, about 10 miles south of Edinburg, during the height of the region’s outbreak. Priscilla Garcia, 39, is at a loss to explain how her father, Rolando Garcia, and her mother, Yolanda Garcia, two high school sweethearts who had been married for nearly 50 years and rarely left home, had become infected.

“They went to the hospital the same day and never came back,” Ms. Garcia said. The couple, both 70, died within days of each other in early July. Ms. Garcia, who overcame the disease herself, said an aunt died in early August after a long struggle with the virus.

“It just happened so fast,” said Ms. Garcia, who is a nurse. “You never think you are going to lose both your parents at the same time.”

She had worn a face mask while visiting her parents, she said. Still, the virus managed to infect her. And then her husband and her 2-year-old daughter, who displayed minor symptoms.

On a recent day, Ms. Garcia visited her parents’ home, adorned with old family photos and plastic flowers. She chuckled as she caressed the two lovebird figurines in front of the wooden urns containing her parents’ ashes. Whenever her mother would get angry at her father, she said, she would turn the female bird around, giving her back to the male bird. “That’s how he knew he was to stay away.” Now, they were back in the right direction.

Some families in the valley had been struggling even before the pandemic arrived. Within a year, Maribel Avila Ryan in Alamo had lost the family matriarch to cirrhosis and an uncle to a heart attack. A niece, who lived in Houston, was shot to death in April.

Then the virus made things worse, claiming the lives of an uncle, Frutoso Jasso, 74, on July 28, and an older sister, Dalia Enett Solis, 52, on Aug. 16.

On the same day her sister was taken to a hospital, the family learned that the woman’s daughter was pregnant with a little girl. Her sister had loved all of her grandsons, but for years had longed for a granddaughter she could dress up and treat “like a princess,” Ms. Avila recalled.

This Christmas will be an unusually somber one with so many empty chairs at the table, Ms. Avila said. “You feel anger, like why do we have to go through so much mourning,” she said. “I know others have had it worse, losing three or four family members in the same household. But it still hurts.”

Ms. Rodriguez has been struggling with the same thing. She made herself put up not one but two trees and decorations after her grandchildren, 6-year-old twins, insisted that Santa would skip the home for one with more holiday cheer if he did not see a Christmas tree.

Searching the room her husband had called his man cave, Ms. Rodriguez stumbled upon a Santa Claus costume lying on a chair. She caught her breath. It looked as if the jovial man who had worn it every year had suddenly evaporated and left it behind.

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