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Latinx Files: Remembering loved ones lost to COVID-19

A black and white collage of people who died from COVID-19
(Martina Ibáñez-Baldor / Los Angeles Times)

I’ve written it before, but I’ll write it again: The coronavirus has been mercilessly devastating our community.

Last week, my colleagues Ron Lin and Luke Money reported that Latinx COVID-19 deaths had jumped by 1,000% since November.

These are just numbers, though. Numbers can’t quantify how much a person means to someone. They can’t tell you they love you, or make you laugh or cry or feel safe.

People do. That’s who we are losing in this pandemic. Not numbers.

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“This virus is taking away a whole generation of mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters, you know, who are young kids, teenage kids,” Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, told the Congressional Hispanic Caucus last year.

“And it occurred to me that what we’re seeing really is the historic decimation among the Hispanic community by the virus.”

Last Friday, I put out a call on Twitter asking folks to write whatever they’d like about a loved one they’ve lost to COVID-19. What you’ll find below are some of the responses I got.

One of the tenets of this newsletter is to serve as a platform for the community, and the fact is that many of us are grieving. I’m hoping that by publishing these reader-submitted notes, it lightens the burden of their grief.

Also, if you’d like to share your own memory, feel free to email it to me at latinxfiles@latimes.com. The plan is to run them in future editions of the newsletter.

Laura Castañeda remembers her tío John, the patriarch of her family

Venustiano “John” Castañeda stands next to the World Series trophy.
Venustiano “John” Castañeda at Wrigley Field in 2016.
(Mary Bennett)

I remember when I was about 6 years old, we were all gathered at my abuela’s house on 5th Street in Sterling, Ill. My tío John, who could have been identical twins with my own dad, Ignacio, played a joke on me. He told me he was my papá, and I fell for it! Their genes were undeniable. My tío, Venustiano “John” Castañeda, was the eldest of the 10 siblings. He had recently turned 94.

My uncle did not use a walker, or need assistance living his life. He was famous in our giant family for making us laugh, and dancing at family reunions. He had an amazing spirit about him that started when he was a young handsome man in El Paso, Texas.

My tío strummed the guitar and the accordion. He had a passion for music and adventure.

When he was 16 years old, he and his younger brother Victor made their way to Los Angeles, jumping on freight trains. It was 1943. They worked in restaurants, in the fields, and gambled in pool halls. Eventually, they grew tired, making their way back home to Texas.

Not long after, John met a beautiful girl, Tomasa. Tío serenaded her. He said it was love at first sight, and it was patience that kept them together for nearly 70 years. They settled in Sterling, Ill., where my uncle worked for 32 years at Northwestern Steel & Wire.

After retirement, he spent time with his 11 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, at the riverboat casinos, playing Scrabble, reading and watching his favorite baseball team, the Chicago Cubs.

Then just like that in early January, my dad tells me my tío tested positive for coronavirus. At first, no symptoms for days, then he started having trouble breathing. In less than two weeks, my uncle was hospitalized, and gone.

I know, he lived a full life. Claro. There is no denying that. But in my familia there is serious longevity. My great grandmother, Juanita, lived to be 105. My grandma Beatriz, 96. So I selfishly expected my tío and all his brothers and sisters for that matter, to become centenarians too.

His death is hard for me to accept. I should have called him more often, recorded more of his history, our history. But his legacy lives on through all of us that share his blood.

The only thing that gives me solace is picturing him in heaven serenading his bride again, hugging his loved ones, and knowing he had the opportunity to watch his Cubbies win the World Series in 2016. Te quiero tío. Descansa en paz.

Laura Castañeda is the community opinion editor at the San Diego Union-Tribune. You can find her on Twitter at @presspasslc.

Cynthia Ramirez remembers her abuelo Don Jose

Don Jose always made his granddaughter Cynthia feel protected.
(Cynthia Ramirez)

We lost the patriarch of our family to COVID-19 on Saturday, Jan. 9. In true Catholic form, my abuelo Jose, also known as “Pelón” or Don Jose, went home to Diosito on a Saturday, el día de la Virgencita. His passing has permanently changed our lives and family dynamic — I could go on forever about how incredible it has been to watch my papí and tías come together to try and fill the void of losing our patriarch. It’s like they’d been training for this forever.

They’ve stepped up to build a safe, healing space with a grace and beauty I thought only poets and artists could create. It has truly been an inspiration to watch. We weren’t able to have a proper ceremony or funeral for my abuelo, which makes closure impossible but seeing your tweet reminded me that my family and I are not alone in our grief. Our entire community is grieving the premature loss of our loved ones. Your tweet also reminded me that our ancestors prepared us for this pain through their teachings of collective grief and healing. Anyways, all this to say, thank you. Thank you for holding this space for us all to collectively heal and grieve.

Here’s my favorite memory of my abuelo:

When I was around 7 or 9 years old, my abuelo took me to grab a hamburger at the Nations in San Pablo, Calif. It was late. I remember the sun had already set and there was a wind chill coming in, as is custom in the East Bay. He parked close to the entrance and we headed towards the doors swiftly and silently. I was just about to set foot on the curb right in front of the entrance when I noticed a man stumbling near the front door. I hadn’t seen him before, so his presence scared me, and I instinctively grabbed my abuelo’s arm for comfort. He wasn’t a very affectionate man, he wasn’t one to engage in physical touch — so my grabbing onto him spoke volumes to my fear. I think he knew that, which might be why he didn’t shrug me off or question my touch. He just looked down at me, then towards the man, pulled me close and kept walking towards the door.

Once inside, we ordered and sat at the nearest table waiting for our to-go order. We eventually got our food and headed back to his car. But right before he pushed the front doors open he stopped, looked down at me and said, “Tita, mientras que yo esté contigo no le tienes que tener miedo a ningún hijo de la chingada. ¿Me entiendes? Nunca voy a dejar que nada malo te pase.” I wanted to hug him and say thank you, thank you for protecting me, but instead I grinned and nodded silently. Then, hands held, we walked into the parking lot together.

María Verónica Huezo remembers her tía Azucena

María Verónica Hueza remembers her tia Azucena, who was named after a flower.
(María Verónica Huezo)

She was named after a flower. The only one of five daughters named after a flower by my abuelita. A flower as a symbol of strength and beauty. A flower who at times wilted and represented sadness. A flower who at times represented love. A flower who at times represented power. A flower who now rests in peace. A flower I will always carry in my heart.

My tia took care of me when I briefly lived with her once many moons ago in Miami. She had only sons, and she loved dressing me up because she loved being feminine and girly. She was stunningly beautiful.

I, a tomboy, let her dress me up because I knew it made her smile. Because love is that smile. Because love is that fleeting moment. Because love never dies. Love is unconquerable.

Rest in peace. Rest peacefully knowing you will be remembered.

I love you eternally, tía.

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A reader who asked not to be named remembers her brother Juan Enrique

December 2020 will go down in my own life story as one of the saddest on record. My older brother, Juan Enrique, passed away. Before I get to that part of the story, in full disclosure, I must tell the reader that my brother, Enrique, was homeless, and the disease of drug addiction had long been a shadow in his relationship to the rest of our family. Once the pandemic hit, we tried to find shelter for him. We searched for weeks or months without knowing where he was. Our father called Enrique “el burro” because he was so stubborn. Well, I sometimes wanted to tell my father that Enrique resembled him in every way. It most definitely influenced the reasons behind the homelessness, but to get into those details is useless now.

When we finally found Enrique in mid-December, he was living in a motel in Austin. He was found unconscious in a coma he never came out of. The virus found him before we did, and it truly felt like a miracle that he survived a full week before he passed on Dec. 22. We couldn’t even see him at the time of his death because it was deemed unsafe to be in the hospital room with him. This will haunt me for the rest of my life, that I couldn’t be there for my brother in his final moments.

The Christmas holidays will forever be tarnished with this painful memory of the end of my brother’s life. Yet I also want the world to remember my brother as I remember him. His gifts were many: An accomplished musician, visual artist, filmmaker, drum major and a big brother protector to me when we both attended the same university. The trauma of our difficult upbringing was too much for him to overcome. He joins our mother in the spirit world.

Enrique came to me a few weeks ago in my dreams. He was dressed in full Aztec dancer regalia. The sound of a shaker in his hands as he danced, along with a beautiful plumed headdress and an iridescent blue and red “traje” brought me comfort. He danced with passion, force and purpose. I’m not sure what that purpose was. Perhaps it was to show that he was finally happy. Big brother, I truly hope that was your message for me. Juan Enrique — PRESENTE!

Russ Lopez remembers his mother Jo

Jo Lopez poses for a black and white photo in 1947.
Jo Lopez in 1947.
(Russ Lopez)

Jo Lopez was born in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931 and died in Chatsworth, Calif., in 2020. Her father was from Guanajuato, and her mother was of Italian ancestry and born in West Virginia. Jo’s father was part of the first wave of Mexican immigration to the Midwest, where he worked in a steel mill before bringing his growing family to California during World War II. Like the rest of her family, Jo worked in the canneries around San Jose when she was young. Then she went to night school to learn bookkeeping and spent her career working for defense contractors.

Jo was renowned for her good looks. She often wore sunglasses and was always well-dressed — one of her nicknames was “Hollywood.” She inspired her many nieces and the young women she mentored to look their best. Over time she grew into the matriarch of the family, hosting Christmas, birthdays and other important celebrations well into her 80s. Her culinary skills were famous; she used her combined Mexican and Italian heritage when she cooked.

Jo married Joe Galindo Lopez and had two sons, Steven and Russ. Her longtime partner, Robert Griggs, predeceased her. When Jo came down with COVID-19, her family and friends thought she would fight it off because it was impossible to imagine anything could beat her. But she passed peacefully in her sleep on Dec. 5, 2020.

Libeth Morales remembers her great-aunt and great-uncle Licha and Felipe Castillo

Licha, who is holding flowers, and Felipe Castillo pose for the camera and smile.
Licha and Felipe Castillo died of COVID-19 a few days of each other.
(Libeth Morales)

A few weeks ago, my family lost our tía Licha and tío Felipe — I guess technically my great-aunt and great-uncle — to COVID-19 within days of each other. They lived in Alamo, Texas.

Tía Licha is a distant but constant memory for me when I think about my time in Alamo. She was sweet, brutally funny and honest the way older Mexican tías are, and just kind of the best. Here’s a story my mom (Petra, or Petry in this story) shared that I think speaks to the care, honesty, criticism but ultimately familiar love from our tías:

“In May 2009, Gman [stepdad, Guillermo] and I went to visit welita’s tombstone in Texas. When we arrived we went to visit tía Licha. She looked at me and said ‘Petry cuidate,’ then she touched my big lonja and said, ‘Mira como estas de gorda!’ It was quite embarrassing at the time but I just said, ‘Es que estoy feliz, tía!’ She was always one to speak her mind. I loved my tía for her honesty. Even though she was honest and forward, she was always there when we needed her. She had a rough life but she always made time to laugh and smile and spend quality time with her children, nieces and nephews.”

They’re survived by six kids and 18 (!) grandchildren.

Aaron Cantú remembers his uncle Armando

Armando Salinas poses for the camera and smiles.
Armando Salinas was a high school football coach in Edinburg, Texas.
(Aarón Cantú)

We weren’t related by blood. My uncle Armando married my aunt Gloria Cantú, my dad’s sister, probably when I was in middle school. But my uncle immediately made himself part of our family. I remember from my childhood that he had a warm, inviting personality, and became like a brother to my father and his three brothers. He helped care for my grandparents, just like any good cuñado would. He was one of only two uncles to come to my high school graduation (a big deal, because I have a lot of uncles), and he was the only uncle to fly to Boston when I graduated from college.

As social media became a larger part of all our lives, I reconnected with Uncle Armando as an adult over Facebook and Instagram. He was a huge meme poster on Facebook. He’d post boomer humor memes, Rio Grande Valley-centric memes, anti-Trump memes, pro-democratic socialist and humanitarian memes, sports memes (he was a major Cowboys fan, and worked as a high school football coach in Edinburg, Texas) and other silly or inspiring posts. He was supportive of my journalism and always shared my articles or left thoughtful comments. It’s so strange for him to suddenly be gone, and to not see his posts anymore. I don’t know what happens to a person’s digital meme trail once they’re gone, or what should happen to it, but it feels like a window into someone’s personality that didn’t exist before.

In closing, I’ll include this Facebook comment from one of his former students: “Thank you for the endless life lessons and for believing in me when no one did, I’ll always enjoy talking about football or talking about our families during lunch or in the summer. I wish I could talk to you one last time and thank you for changing my life and the rest of the amazing things you did for me. You were a great coach, mentor, and an even greater human being. love you coach, you will forever live in my heart. May you rest in peace.”


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