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Why this El Paso family is celebrating Thanksgiving over Zoom

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The Lopez family always gets together to celebrate holidays and important events. 

They are a big family, and on a typical Thanksgiving day, cousins cross over from Juárez, kids fly in from out of state, and they all convene at the table to say what they’re thankful for and eat a big meal. 

“I am a Mexican-American, so we’re always very used to being together for every celebration: birthdays, holidays. It is very important for us, especially on special occasions like Christmas and Thanksgiving,” said Bertha Lopez, a 55-year-old El Pasoan who has three children and seven siblings.

But this year is different, said Bertha’s 29-year-old daughter Arleen. The Lopez family will not gather in-person on Thanksgiving, instead using Zoom and dropping off food on each other’s doorsteps to remotely celebrate together. 

“I just personally want to mitigate that risk (of spreading COVID-19) as much as possible,” Arleen said. “What made it more visceral and more real for us was that my grandma actually got COVID.”

Arleen Lopez and her mother, Bertha Lopez. (Photo courtesy of the Lopez family)

Arleen’s 82-year-old grandmother, Maria Alvarez, who everyone calls “Mamaita,” was hospitalized with the deadly virus for nine days in July, and had a month-long recovery with supplemental oxygen.

“It’s the worst feeling in the world that I don’t wish on anybody,” said Bertha, describing the fear that her mother would die alone in the hospital, and the anxiety of waiting at home through those nine days, praying her mother would recover. 

Because of the current surge in COVID-19 cases throughout the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that Americans celebrate Thanksgiving only with the people they live with, and not have gatherings outside of their immediate household. 

“For us, if we can just avoid making things worse or putting ourselves in jeopardy and putting others in jeopardy, then that’s what we’re gonna do,” Arleen said.

Maria Alvarez and her granddaughter, Arleen Lopez. (Photo courtesy of the Lopez family)

In El Paso, the recent COVID-19 surge has been particularly destructive, with both hospitals and morgues past capacity. Right now in El Paso, in any group of 10 people there is a 54% chance at least one person has COVID-19,  according to a risk assessment indicator built by Georgia Tech University.

In Canada, gatherings on Thanksgiving (which is celebrated in October) led to a cataclysmic surge in COVID-19 cases. “Better a Zoom Thanksgiving thank an ICU Christmas,” former CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden said in a recent tweet

The Lopez family is planning on connecting over the video calling app in order to be together this year.

“We plan on meeting through Zoom and sharing our food from far away,” said “Mamaita” Maria, who urged other El Pasoans to do their part this Thanksgiving in slowing the spread of COVID-19.

“Stay away from each other to take care of one another, so that we can get rid of the virus sooner, and so things can go back to normal,” she said.

Because of the lengthy incubation period of COVID-19, a negative test result does not assure that a person will not be contagious. If there is a possible exposure to COVID-19, quarantining for 14 days is the best bet. That would mean in order to gather on Thanksgiving, attendees would have had to be quarantining since Nov. 12.

Bertha Lopez and her mother, Maria. (Photo courtesy of the Lopez family)

Bertha is coordinating with her siblings to drop off food on her mother’s doorstep, and said that the whole family will get together Thanksgiving Day on Zoom to share what they are thankful for. 

One thing they are thankful for is that Maria survived COVID-19, and that right now they are healthy. 

Arleen thinks that El Pasoans who haven’t experienced a family member sick with COVID-19 might not fully understand the risk. She said that she and her family members worry that Maria could get sick again and have a worse outcome, or that another family member could get sick. 

“Sometimes I think people need to be confronted with the reality of what this disease can do, and it’s really sad, because once you’re at that point, it can be too late,” she said. 

Cover photo: Like most El Paso families, the Lopez family traditionally comes together for big occasions and holidays. But they’re not gathering for Thanksgiving this year. (Photo courtesy of the Lopez family)

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René Kladzyk

René Kladzyk is a musician and writer based in El Paso. She performs original music as Ziemba, and has written for publications including Teen Vogue, i-D, and The Creative Independent. Her new album came out on Sister Polygon Records in September 2020, and she is hopeful that we’ll be able to enjoy live music together IRL again soon enough.

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