The Perez family in West El Paso is ready to celebrate the holidays. They put up their giant Christmas display right after Halloween.
“We decided to do it early just because it’s just been a hard year for everyone,” said Michelle Perez.
The decorations include twinkling lights, big inflatable characters and a Christmas tree to brighten spirits in the neighborhood as El Paso copes with a deadly surge in COVID-19 cases.
“We built a 6-foot tree, right in our front yard, for people to see filled with animals and lights,” said Jennifer Perez. The decorations extend from the front yard to the top of the roof.
“It’s a Santa Claus and a sleigh and he’s going down the chimney,” said Perez. “We just have boxes of 600 count lights going off everywhere,” she said.
Though they went all out decorating the house, the family is downsizing their in-person holiday celebrations, limiting Thanksgiving and Christmas to their immediate household. “We’re terrified,” said Perez.
At least 860 people have died and nearly 450 additional deaths are under investigation in El Paso, the epicenter of the current wave of COVID cases in Texas. Health authorities are warning families that holiday gatherings could turn into super spread events.
Families on both sides of the border face additional challenges trying to contain the virus including multigenerational households and large numbers of essential workers who have to leave home to do their jobs.
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 but they, along with an older brother, are also involved in the small family-owned construction company, a business with essential workers.
“We’re very paranoid. We Lysol everything. It’s hard because we have different ages,” said Perez. Their 65-year-old father has diabetes, which put him at higher risk when their mother got COVID in July.
“I almost died,” said Inocencia Perez. She tells people who don’t believe the virus is that bad, “It exists. A lot of people are dying. This pandemic is very strong.” She urges people to be conscientious this holiday season.
Dr. Armando Meza, Chief of infectious Diseases at Texas Tech Health Sciences Center in El Paso wants all families to understand 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,” said Meza.
Dr. Meza knows that family dynamic well. He has relatives in both El Paso and Juarez. 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. Why would you not do it if you’re not feeling sick or you don’t think mentally you are at risk? I think that is the idea that we need to change in the public, in the community,” said Meza.
“When I heard about COVID, I never thought that my family would get it,” said Michell Castillo.
But multiple relatives did get COVID, including her 65-year-old father Carlos Castillo. “We all thought in my family that he was very strong. I mean, he exercised every day since I can remember,” said Castillo.
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 searching waiting in line in Juarez 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,” said Castillo.
She said she was told by multiple hospitals in Juarez 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 November 2nd, the Dia de los Muertos holiday in Mexico.
He’s among at least 1,875 COVID-19 deaths in Ciudad Juarez. There are hundreds of suspected coronavirus deaths that are not included in the official count.
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,” said Michell Castillo.
Though he did not survive, she’s grateful her father was able to get good care in Juarez 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 is also 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.
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.”
They look forward to all being together again next holiday season by staying apart this year.