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Coronavirus took her husband-to-be. Now, she’s a single mom again

Maria Reyna Flores, left, and Juan Martinez, with their children
(Family photo)

When Maria Reyna Flores allowed herself to daydream, she would envision a life where she found someone to love and respect her, someone who would take her 8-year-old son, Erick, and claim him as his own.

The reality was far different.

She was a single mother, working long hours in the kitchen at the Elephant Bar in Stockton, battling depression and the nagging concern that she wasn’t spending enough time with her son as she struggled to make ends meet.

But one day that changed.

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“Y sí,” she said. “Sí lo conocí.”

“And yes,” she said. “I found him.”

His name was Juan Martinez, a hard-working and affectionate man who worked at the same restaurant with Flores. Martinez would take her out on dates and would always invite Erick along. The two would eventually have three daughters and continue taking the kids on trips to their favorite restaurants.

“If he wanted to give me a kiss, and my kids were there, he would still give it to me,” Flores said. “I felt proud to have a husband who loved me so much.”

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More than a decade after meeting, things were looking bright for the family: Erick was starting to pack his things to get his own apartment, Martinez had proposed to Flores and the family was starting to plan a big wedding celebration for later this year.

“That was true love,” Erick said, noting his mother always referred to Martinez as her husband. “They never really needed the title of marriage; they didn’t need that to prove their love.”

Then came the pandemic. As with thousands of other Californians, Martinez contracted coronavirus and died within days, the end coming so swiftly the family still struggles to digest how it will redirect their lives.

Juan Martinez dreamed of starting a restaurant with Maria Reyna Flores. He enjoyed cooking for his family.
Juan Martinez dreamed of starting a restaurant with Maria Reyna Flores. He enjoyed cooking for his family.
(Erick Flores)
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For Erick, it means returning home to Stockton to be with his mother and three sisters. For Flores, it means going back to work. Everything else has been put on hold.

“His role will never be taken by anyone else. Not even me. I’ll always be the big brother,” Erick said. “Me and my mom will just have to join forces and see what we have to do.”

Erick recently graduated with an associate degree in retail management and merchandising. Despite the upheaval, he intends to return to college eventually and earn a bachelor’s degree in business — as Martinez always wanted.

“He was always in my business about college, but I understand now,” Erick said, adding that he could see the pride in his dad’s face at his scholarship events and graduation. “He cared for me.”

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For now, that goal is on pause as he takes on this new role as a big brother with more responsibilities; he’ll now help provide for his sisters, Ericka, 10, Alondra, 5, and Brianna, 3.

“It was a nightmare for me growing up,” Erick said. “There were stepdads that were abusive. It was just tough. Just up and down. I would always move a lot, going to different schools, so it was tough.”

Erick’s mother too has begun to grapple with the tough decisions she will now have to make.

She’s been able to feed her family with the more than $10,000 Erick helped raise on GoFundMe, but she knows those donations will soon run out, especially if Medi-Cal doesn’t cover Martinez’s hospital stay.

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“I was a single mother once, and now I am one again,” she said, the sound of her daughters playing filling the house. “There will come a moment when I’ll need to start working; if not my kids won’t have anything to eat.”

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One of the hardest things for Flores since Martinez’s death is not sharing with her youngest daughters that papi will no longer be coming back.

“Every time the door opens or a car parks, the youngest says, ‘Mi papi is home,’” Flores said. “And I’m still waiting for him to come home too, because I still can’t believe that he’s gone.”

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Martinez started feeling sick May 31 after coming home from a 10-hour shift. He first started feeling body aches, which wasn’t completely uncommon given the nature of his job as a forklift driver at a produce warehouse.

But things got worse that night when he started hyperventilating and running a fever. By the next day, he was intubated. The day after that, he was put on life support.

“They pretty much told me he was not going to get better,” Erick said. “That’s when reality hit.”

After a heart attack, Martinez died June 7 at Dameron Hospital in Stockton.

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Despite the void, he left his family with a dream.

“His biggest dream was to open a little restaurant and give us a better future,” Flores said. “He’d tell me ‘One day, we’re going to do it.’ Now, I want to follow my husband’s dreams.”


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