November 29, 2020

The Stunning Sweep of the Coronavirus Through the Rio Grande Valley

MCALLEN, Texas — There are many reasons for a special level of alarm when the coronavirus swept out of Texas’s biggest cities in recent weeks and arrived with force in the Rio Grande Valley.

The small cities along the border with Mexico are among the poorest in Texas. The Valley, as local residents call it, is a place of hard labor and low pay where “working from home” is unfeasible. It is dotted with teeming colonias, orphan communities that are often without paved roads or sewer connections — places where the virus, once it arrives, can thrive.

The worries, it turned out, were justified. More than 8,000 people in Hidalgo County — some of whom I know only too well — have had cases of the virus confirmed. The county on Thursday surpassed its previous record with 1,274 cases in a single day; more than 150 people have died.

My family moved to the Rio Grande Valley in the mid-1990s, when I was 16. My parents, two sisters and their offspring all live on the same block outside of McAllen. As soon as the outbreak reached the border, I volunteered to report on the story because I was uniquely equipped to tell it.

After having reported on the virus during its calamitous sweep through New York City, I knew that the warm, close-knit family culture I had grown up with in the Valley would make social distancing a challenge — and as I called ahead to prepare for my return home, I quickly learned that my worst fears were coming true.

Seemingly overnight, people’s aunts, uncles, grandmas and cousins were falling victim, one by one, to the highly contagious virus.

“Three months ago very few knew anyone who had contracted the virus,” Jim Darling, the mayor of McAllen, Hidalgo County’s largest city, told me. “Now, you can’t find people who don’t know anyone who isn’t infected. It completely flipped.”

But I never expected that I would be part of this story.

The day before I boarded a plane from New York, my youngest sister sent me a text message that froze me in place. “Brother, it looks like all of the Sandovales have Covid,” it read in Spanish.

Five in my family, including my mother, Arcelia; my father, Filiberto; two sisters; and a nephew all had symptoms, she said.

By the time my plane landed the next day, that number had doubled.

In recent weeks, public health officials have been imploring Texans to wear masks and obey social-distancing guidelines. Some restaurants have begun taking patrons’ temperatures, and bars have remained largely closed since the pandemic made a resurgence.

But one thing that has continued to stymie efforts at keeping people at a distance in the Valley is its longstanding culture of pachangas, a colloquial expression for the festive family gatherings where social distancing is almost nonexistent.

There has recently been a troublingly high rate of infection within family clusters, said Eduardo Olivarez, chief administrative officer of the Hidalgo County Health Department.

“When you have one or two people in the household who may be infected, the probability of spreading it to others in the household is high,” said Mr. Olivarez, who is known as Eddie.

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Updated 2020-07-14T10:34:04.565Z

Pachangas have been a way of life in the Valley for as long as I can remember. The one I attended this past February held a special meaning for my family and me.

My mother had recently overcome an aggressive form of breast cancer, and we had turned the garage into an impromptu party hall for her 66th birthday. Relatives sat close to each other on plastic chairs and savored smoky carne asada. A mariachi band played “Las Mañanitas” as my mother clapped to the sounds of the trumpets and the guitars.

“The day you were born, all the flowers were born, too,” the mariachi sang. My mother took turns dancing with almost every guest until her body gave out. “I haven’t danced like that since I was a teenager,” she said that night.

As I reported the story, I ran into other families who had gathered in recent weeks, only to see the coronavirus strike those who were there, one by one.

ImageCris Flores, left, and her grandfather, Ramon Contreras.

Cris Flores told me about her grandfather, Ramon Contreras, who had followed all the rules set out by the state for dealing with the virus. When he turned 84 at the height of the pandemic in late April, the family settled for an impersonal Zoom session.

Weeks later, after Texas eased its stay-at-home restrictions, Mr. Contreras gathered with about 10 family members for a pachanga.

By mid-June, the family patriarch was the first to display severe symptoms of the coronavirus and later died, Ms. Flores said. By the time of Mr. Contreras’s funeral, nearly 20 relatives had been infected.

“He loved to get his family together,” Ms. Flores said. “And that’s what took him.”

My family’s encounter with the virus started in the last week of June, when my 17-year-old nephew, who mistook his virus symptoms for strep, joined my 66-year-old mother, 69-year-old father, two sisters and a brother-in-law on a medical road trip to Houston, where my mother had scheduled a mammogram.

On their way back to the Valley, they visited relatives in Galveston. After Father’s Day, about a dozen relatives who had met one another during the trip began describing debilitating headaches, body chills, fever and trouble breathing, all classic Covid-19 symptoms.

The Contreras family was in a similar situation. They gathered for their festive pachanga on June 1, dancing to mariachi music, sharing family stories and savoring classic Mexican barbecue.

“Because they kept it small, they thought they were doing the right thing,” said Ms. Flores, who stayed home because she worried about the virus.

It only took a few days for Mr. Contreras to develop a severe respiratory illness. Two of his sons soon joined him in the hospital with difficulty breathing. Soon uncles, aunts and cousins also fell ill.

Ms. Flores told me that when she heard her grandfather’s brain was bleeding, she rushed to the hospital and found him unconscious and connected to several tubes.

“Your güera is here,” she whispered, using the nickname he had given her as a child, alluding to her light complexion.

She recalled praying next to his bed and then dialing several family members who bid him emotional farewells before he took his last breath.

“I am forever grateful to have been given that opportunity not to let my grandpa die alone,” she said in tears.

Credit…Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

As I arrived in the Valley on June 27, I learned that most of my sick family members were weathering Covid-19 in isolation. One of my aunts had complained of trouble breathing and was taken by ambulance to a hospital near Galveston. I did not worry much for myself — I had come down with the virus earlier in New York, and had antibodies that might fend it off.

On July 1, I hurried to my parents’ home and found my mother — I usually call her “Ama” — in the living room, gasping for air.

I knew she had to go, and quickly, to one of the hospitals, but where? The few hospitals in the Valley were filling up quickly. By the time my sister and I got her into the emergency room at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance in McAllen, her blood oxygen level had reached a paltry 80 percent, and a nurse quickly connected her to an oxygen supply. X-ray images showed her lungs nearly covered in what resembled pale spider webs.

“I’m surprised your mother was able to breathe on her own, given the poor state of her lungs,” another nurse said.

I nodded my head quietly. This was the woman who had prided herself on working as a cleaning lady well into her eighth month of pregnancy. Whenever one of my three sisters complained about the slightest ache, she was quick to remind them that she had juggled mops, brooms and cleaning carts, all while carrying a belly the size of a watermelon.

On this night, she said little. Instead she focused on slowly inhaling and exhaling the dwindling air moving through her lungs. Less than an hour after a nurse administered a coronavirus test, he announced that she was positive.

“No surprise there,” Ama said.

Two attendants arrived with a stretcher to transport her into a Covid wing at another location, where she would not be allowed to have visitors, I knew. My throat tightened. The beeping sound of the monitors echoed around the small room.

The two attendants asked her to place her arms on her stomach and they wrapped her in a white blanket.

“We’re going to make a señora burrito,” one of them said, and we laughed.

Suddenly I panicked. Our family, while close, has never been overly emotional. Growing up, Ama used to remind us that she might not say “I love you” often, but that she and Apa worked hard to provide us with food and a roof over our heads. And that’s what matters, she would say. Actions, not words.

I fought the urge to reach for her and say something profound. Should I say I love you? Was it time for a heartfelt farewell? What if this was the last time I would see her alive?

I decided that if I said something poignant, she might interpret it as a final goodbye and give up. Instead, I decided to act as casual as possible.

“Echele ganas,” I murmured as the attendants began pushing her away. “Do your best.” I waved goodbye.

Ama nodded yes and disappeared down the hallway.

After Mr. Contreras’s burial, Ms. Flores developed a dry cough. She later tested positive for the virus.

Two weeks after she had started feeling sick, all four of her children were also showing signs.

Looking back, she wished her family had heeded the warnings. Some days she wonders if she should have pushed back more forcefully. First there was the pachanga, then the funeral. They had known such gatherings could be risky, she said, but somehow no one really believed there would be serious consequences.

“There is a whole mentality of no pasa nada,’ you know?” she said. “Nothing will happen.”

As the second week of July rolled around, most of my dozen or so family members who had fallen ill began peeling out of bed. My mother and aunt remained hospitalized but were showing signs of recovery. Everyone told stories of excruciating body aches, debilitating chills and burning fevers.

Apa limped out of his bedroom, the lights from a window stabbing his eyes. He said he felt as if he had wrestled a monster made out of burning lava all night. My oldest sister said that every morning after waking up, she felt as if an invisible hammer was smashing her head.

Some days, Ama managed to text us a selfie, outfitted in her oxygen mask. Other days she told us that she had slept poorly and that her breathing became labored when she tried to walk.

All five of us children stared at our phones as if our lives depended on it, waiting for news.

“They are giving me plasma,” she would write, and then go silent.

“I want to come home soon,” she would text days later.

Nearly a week after I had dropped her at the emergency room, her mood and breathing had significantly improved. She was able to sit upright and hold a phone conversation for five minutes. We began talking about preparations for her eventual return home.

I wanted to say I loved her. But again I choked. Don’t make it sound like you’re saying goodbye, I told myself.

After we hung up, I sent her a GIF of a white bunny that shoots hearts every time it hugs.

“I love you,” the message flashed, over and over.