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On both sides of the border, COVID-19 casts a pall over holiday season

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The holidays during the pandemic are filled with anxiety and heartache that extends to both sides of the border. 

In Juárez, the Castillo family is in mourning confronting the first Christmas without their patriarch. “He had this gift of helping others,” Michell Castillo said of her father. 

In El Paso COVID nearly claimed the Perez family matriarch.  “We’re terrified,” said Jennifer Perez. Her mother was sickened by COVID this summer.

“I almost died,” Inocencia Perez said.

The Perez family is determined to celebrate the holidays and put up their massive Christmas display right after Halloween to brighten spirits.

 “We decided to do it early just because it’s just been a hard year for everyone,” Jennifer Perez said. The decorations include twinkling lights, big inflatable characters and a Christmas tree.

The Perez family put up a large Christmas display at their home in West El Paso right after Halloween to brighten spirits as El Paso experienced a deadly surge in COVID cases. (Angela Kocherga/El Paso Matters

The contrasting scenes are but a snapshot of the grief, heartbreak and hope in this binational community experiencing the deadliest COVID surge since the pandemic started.  Ciudad Juárez has more than 2,200 confirmed COVID-19 deaths, according to figures from the Chihuahua State Health Department, with hundreds of additional deaths suspected but not included in the official count. 

This weekend El Paso’s official count topped 1,000 confirmed COVID-19, with more than 600 suspected deaths still being investigated. Health authorities are warning families that holiday gatherings could become superspreader events.

The Perez family downsized their in-person Thanksgiving celebration to include only members of their household and plan the same for Christmas. Even so, they and so many families face additional challenges in trying to contain the virus.

At the Perez home 19-year-old Jennifer, her 17-year-old brother Jorge and their parents live under one roof. Both teens attend classes remotely and they, along with an older brother, are involved in the small family-owned construction company which employs essential workers who remain on the job during the pandemic.

“We’re very paranoid. We Lysol everything. It’s hard because we have different ages,”Jennifer  Perez said. Their 65-year-old father has diabetes, which put him at higher risk when their mother got COVID in July.

Inocencia Perez, her daughter Jennifer and son Jorge stand in front of their home decorated for Christmas in West El Paso. (Angela Kocherga/El Paso Matters)

 Inocencia Perez tells people who don’t believe the virus is that bad, “It exists. People are dying. This pandemic is very strong.” She wants families to be conscientious this holiday season. 

Dr. Armando Meza, chief of infectious Diseases at Texas Tech Health Sciences Center in El Paso, also is emphasizing that message. 

“Families in the Hispanic population — where we really like to meet, and we like to hug each other and interact and all that — it is an unfortunate situation because it puts us at a very high risk for becoming infected,” Meza said.

He knows that family dynamic well. He has relatives in both El Paso and Juárez. While strong families are the backbone of border communities, those bonds can also increase the risk for COVID. The virus can spread like wildfire through large extended families.

“The social network that we’re still under is so powerful,” said Meza. 

In Ciudad Juárez, multiple members of Michell Castillo’s family were infected with COVID during the recent spike in cases, including her 65-year-old father, Carlos Castillo.

Carlos Castillo

 “We all thought in my family that he was very strong. I mean, he exercised every day since I can remember,” Castillo said.

But the man who was a runner most of his life, did yoga and lifted weights needed oxygen as his condition worsened.  Castillo had a harrowing experience waiting in line with others trying to get home oxygen tanks for their loved ones.

“You get there and obviously there’s people desperate because it’s taking a long time,” Castillo said.

She said she was told by multiple hospitals in Ciudad Juárez there was also a long waiting list to be admitted. Fortunately, her husband found a small private hospital where one bed had opened up.  Castillo saw her father for the last time, the day he was admitted to the hospital. 

The family communicated with him a few times via text before he died a few days later on Nov. 2, the Dia de los Muertos holiday in Mexico.

The deadly virus robbed the Castillo family of the chance to comfort each other as they mourned their loss.“My mom came and she was trying to run and hug me and hug my brothers and we couldn’t. We couldn’t get close. We were scared we were going to make her sick,”  Michell Castillo said.

Though he did not survive, she’s grateful her father was able to get good care in the end. “I think that we had angels all around because we could get things that people here wouldn’t get.”

In El Paso, Inocencia Perez also is thankful she could afford medical care.  She beams with pride as she mentions two new reasons to celebrate this year. “God gave us the gift of little twins this year,” she said. 

Her oldest son and his wife had twin baby boys in March. She also has a 9-year old granddaughter. Though they won’t all gather during the holidays at her home as usual, her son and his young family will drive by to see the Christmas lights and say a brief hello. 

Julissa Perez and her twin brothers Pablo and Diego won’t gather at their grandmother’s home this holiday season because of the pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Perez)

Jennifer Perez hopes others who see the display will also find some comfort and joy.

“Just something to make everyone smile, just stop, think about the holidays. Something beautiful, a moment we may not be able to spend with family but it’s something to look forward to.” 

Cover photo: Carlos Castillo, pictured center surrounded by his family, died of COVID-19 in November. From left: son Juan Carlos Castillo, wife Celina de Stefano with their grandchild Andrea Castillo, daughter Michell Castillo and son Rene Castillo (Photo courtesy of Michell Castillo)

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Angela Kocherga

Angela Kocherga is multimedia editor for El Paso Matters. She has dedicated her career as a journalist to reporting stories on both sides of the border for readers, viewers and public radio listeners. She previously served as Mexico City and Border Bureau Chief for a group of television stations. She also serves as news director at public radio KTEP. You can listen to stories by her on air at 88.5 FM and online at KTEP.org.

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