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Mexicans in NY: The fallen that COVID-19 left behind Text:: Nadia Sanders / Photos: Ximena Natera

When Antonio Romero, 59, Heard the phone ring on that night of May, 2020, he didn’t want to talk and handed the phone to his son Rey, 19. The staff at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx gave him the news that his mother had died.

—They called at about 2 a.m. and told us her heart had stopped. They said they would call us to see if they could rescue her. And no. They called us a second time, and she had died. It was about two, two-thirty. Rey recalls.

María Moro, a 52-year-old, Mexican migrant, mother of four, who had lived in New York for decades, had died at the age of 52 from COVID-19 and was undocumented.

She used to sell elotes with mayonnaise and cheese, esquites, donuts, and every antojito for Mexicans and Latinos in a supermarket cart in her neighborhood: the Bronx. Her neighbors say she was especially loved and her place still remains empty, the other merchants on the street haven’t occupied it because it keeps a place for her in their memory.

The Latino migrant community turned out to be the most affected minority from the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, especially in the city of New York. Many of those who died were mothers and fathers of underage children in a country where rights aren’t for everyone and surviving the pandemic has been especially hard on the undocumented.

The Latino and migrant population had the highest rate of COVID-19 deaths,, hospitalizations and infections, with 366 deaths, 1,417 hospitalizations and 8,959 infections per 100,000 residents, a rate above that of the African American and Asian population, according to the New York City Health Department, In total, 33,331 deaths have been recorded as of June 11 due to covid-19, of which 34% were in the Latino population.

The concern to pay the rent

More than 30 years ago, Antonio migrated from San Juan Huiluco, in Puebla, in the center of Mexico, to the United States. He was then followed by María, and 15 years later, his two oldest sons arrived, also undocumented.

—The first and oldest daughter lives in North Carolina with her husband; I have another son who lives around here (in New York). And I have the two youngest, after 15 years, we had children again, 19 and 16 years old, who were born here in New York.

María had diabetes and multiple sclerosis, a disease of the brain and spinal cord that can cause disability and has no cure. Months after Lucy, their youngest daughter, was born, she lost her sight and was only able to recover some visibility after months of treatments.

—But since I was working, she was taken to the therapies and doctor visits by our little boy.— says Antonio, referring to his son Rey, who spent his childhood visiting hospitals because of his mother’s fragile health.

The loss of María and losing his job due to the confinement have put Antonio and his two youngest children in a precarious situation. By March of this year, they owed at least 3,000 dollars in back rent and his irregular immigration status excluded him from the federal government’s support of 600 dollars a week for U.S. citizens for several months.

86% of the Mexican population living in the state of New York rents their housing and the payment expends more than 30% of the income of the majority (60%). On average, there are four people per household and two of them work to support their homes’ livelihood. The loss of income of one of them puts the family in serious trouble.

Rey is an even-tempered young man, he is almost six feet tall, slim, wears glasses and his straight hair is so long that it reaches his waist. He ties it in a samurai-style bun above his neck for comfort. Since 2020, he has taken the role of supporting the livelihood of his home. In the midst of the pandemic, one of his cousins recommended him to work as a cashier in a car wash. Also amidst confinement, he began his university studies thanks to a scholarship he obtained for getting good grades in high school. He wants to be a nurse.

In the Romero Moro family apartment, the children set up an altar on a small table next to the kitchen counter. The picture of María, with wavy hair, robust, white-skinned, smiling, and next to it, some fresh flowers and two candles in a glass vase. Her children miss her, but Rey at least doesn’t cry when he talks about her. He says that his sister prefers to spend most of the day at his aunt’s house, their sister’s mother. Her father says that it’s because she has someone to talk to there.

The ashes of María are in a cherry-colored varnished wooden box at the foot of the bed she shared with Antonio, at the top of a wooden closet, wedged between the base of the bed and the wall.

—Did you think of sending them to Mexico?

—We weren’t able to, the situation was very difficult.

—Did you know that, for some time, the consulate had been giving support for that?

—You can never get in touch, you always call and they never answer. They always say: “call this, and the extension” and they never answer.

The apartment is divided into four, where Antonio, his brother, his son Rey and his daughter Lucy sleep. They believe that Rey was the first one to get COVID-19. When María was taken to the hospital, Antonio also felt sick but did not want medical attention.

—COVID had already come in strong. In fact, where my sister-in-law lives, in Brookly, they had already told us that two of their acquaintances had died and we already knew about it. (…) The paramedics took her away, carrying her out on a stretcher. But she came out fine. The only problem was that she started panicking when she felt that she couldn’t breathe. But she was still looking for the phone charger and everything — Antonio recounts. After, he started to feel sick and called his job, a Greek food restaurant. — So, I didn’t go back to work. I didn’t go to the doctor, I kept taking tea with Tylenol (paracetamol).

When Antonio had just arrived in the United States, his acquaintances warned him never to go to a hospital, so as not to have problems with Immigration.He was determined not to get sick, but the first time he got a cough and fever, an acquaintance passed on to him a remedy from his grandmother. He told him that she sliced two sour oranges in half and put them on to cook; once they were hot, she rubbed them on her back. At night, again, and after two or three cures, “the cough went away”. For the fever, he crushed green tomato, the one with the green skin, added aguardiente, put it to warm up in the fire and then rubbed it on his chest, back, and feet. “And the fever went away”.

Antonio got rid of his symptoms with teas, but what worries him now is that he doesn’t have a job. The restaurant where he worked did not reopen. Also, the rent arrears are increasing month by month.He is thinking of seeking help from organizations, the Mexican Consulate or the new government, while he tries to find a job again. In the meantime, he will continue to sell food in his neighborhood, as his wife used to do.

The economic support for food security for minors would arrive more than a year later, with a payment of $300 per month for each child under 17 of age. The New York Congress approved in April 2021 a budget of $2.1 billion to provide support of up to $15,000 for undocumented immigrants who can evidence that they lost their jobs during the pandemic.

‘My husband was dead on the bed’

A woman, with three young children, arrived one day at the doors of the Mexican Coalition, a grassroots migrant support organization that operates out of a church annex in the South Bronx.

Days earlier, her husband had awakened dead next to her, in their bed, where their one-year-old baby also slept. In the same room that her two other children, no more than 8 years old, also slept and they were all in an apartment that belonged to her husband’s brother.

Jairo Guzmán, president of the Mexican Coalition for the Empowerment of Youth and Families, an organization that supports the Latino community, especially migrants and essential workers, described this case as one the most moving.

—She tells me: we woke up and my husband was dead on the bed. They slept next to the baby. She went out to ask for help that same day. And when she went out, her husband’s family got scared because of everyone’s immigration status (undocumented) and kicked her out of the apartment.

—The youngest child was barely a year old, the oldest was 8. They were small children, — the founder of the Mexican Coalition recalls— She stayed with her children. In this case, the sad thing is that the children lost their father and the rest of their family on his side, the uncles and aunts. Because the family kicked her out. The children suffer the loss of their father, the loss of that family. I can’t imagine that. The pain those kids must have been in, not to mention what their mom is going through.

The Mexican Coalition is one of more than 150 organizations of Mexican origin that had contact and channeled aid to the new migrant population in New York City during the deadliest weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The networks of indigenous people were active during the pandemic

The Red de Pueblos Trasnacionales (Transnational Peoples Network), an organization that promotes the recognition, identity and pride of indigenous peoples who have migrated from their place of origin, also kept its support networks active through social media. Marco Antonio Castillo, activist and director of the network, recalls that members from different regions contacted members of their networks to find out their essential needs. Thousands had lost their jobs overnight, confined in their small apartments, with more than three children, couples, cousins, or other family members. Some preferred to die at home than set foot in a hospital.

—A month ago (February 2021), we had a case in which a person applied for food distribution and asked for it to be taken to her home. Her order was delivered, twice as much food as we normally give out, because she couldn’t go out. Three days later, I got a call from the family to ask for a funeral home because the woman had passed away. She was very young, about 32 years old, with a newborn baby and an 11-year-old kid. We were worried — recalls Yogui Ariza, member of the Red de Pueblos Transnacionales, originally from Puebla and a migrant in New York for almost 20 years.

The pain wasn’t the only difficulty, there was the burden of having to pay between $5,000 and $12,000 for funeral services to cremate and recover the body of their relative, without being able to see her full body for the last time. In the New York metropolitan area, there are approximately 350,000 Mexicans. And the Network estimates that more than half come from rural and indigenous municipalities of less than 10,000 people. The most common languages are Nahuatl, Mixteco, Totonaco and Tlapaneco. There are also inhabitants of the Mixtec area, which include the regions of Guerrero, Oaxaca and Puebla. For these cultures, cremation of the bodies doesn’t align with their beliefs.

—Of course, it is not part of their culture. Plus there is the uncertainty of receiving the ashes of someone you don’t see. People resisted. They would tell the Consulate and they would tell us: we don’t want cremation; we want the whole body. The argument was always: “my mom has to see it, we can’t send the ashes” — Marco Antonio remembers.

The journey home

At least 10,352 remains of Mexicans, in ashes, were repatriated from the United States to Mexico via consular channels during 2020 through April 30, 2021. The highest number, 1,306, came from the tri-state area of New York, Connecticut and New Jersey counties. Followed by the state of Chicago, with 675 cases and Raleigh with 544, according to data from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, obtained through a request for information access.

—The largest repatriation of Mexicans, Jorge Islas López, Consul of Mexico in New York, said in an interview. —The Ministry of Foreign Affairs recognized the magnitude, and they absorbed the totality of the support to help the neediest families. They sent us sufficient funds to support all the families that met certain requirements. 500 families were benefited for services of upt o $1,800 —and the transfer of the ashes.

However, for many members of civil organizations, the consulate’s action was slow and there were more deaths that did not seek repatriation through this channel.

Many urns of the ashes remain in the homes of the families in the United States for reasons of attachment or bureaucracy, either because they had errors in their death certificate or because they were unable to communicate with their consulate.

1,306 ash repatriations held the NY Consulate during 2020 and as of April 30, 2021, including some counties in New Jersey and Connecticut
366 deaths per 100,000 residents in the case of the Hispanic and Latino population
500 props repatriation and funeral services support for a maximum amount of $ 1,800

Source: SRE and New York City Department of Health

In spite of vaccines…

After almost a year, Jairo can’t erase the feeling imprinted on him by the woman who woke up next to the body of her dead husband and arrived at the doors of the Mexican Coalition.

—They didn’t let her have any idea or be involved in any way in what to do with her husband’s body, to say goodbye. The hospital wouldn’t give her any information because they weren’t legally married. They gave everything to the brother. Since his family had kicked her out, she was looking for a place to stay, looking for food, looking for clothes. The last time we saw her, she was going with some friends to Connecticut.

While the city that never sleeps awakens from its confinement, the vaccine has not been equally accessible to all. Vaccination coverage has reached, with at least one dose, half of the total population in New York City, but this has not been even for Latinos. In their case, only a quarter have had access to the vaccine

The undocumented migrant population does not have access to the same rights as U.S. citizens. Our Mexican compatriots will have to navigate the pandemic as long as they can.