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An Oakland Mom’s Death From COVID: How Two Women Are Trying To Fill Her Shoes

A framed memorial for Maribel Villanueva sits among family photos at her sist...

Photo by Beth LaBerge/KQED

Above: A framed memorial for Maribel Villanueva sits among family photos at her sister Susana Villanueva Torres' home in Oakland on June 10, 2021.

More than 60,000 Californians have died from COVID-19, and The California Report Magazine has launched a series to remember some of them. This week's tribute honors Maribel Villanueva, who died last October at 46, leaving behind her 10-year-old son, David. David’s aunt, Susana Villanueva Torres, and his teacher, Mayra Alvarado, say Maribel’s death called each of them to take on roles they never imagined.

David Lara and his mom Maribel Villanueva celebrating his 10th birthday. (Courtesy of Susana Villanueva Torres)

“It's hard to lose your mom at 10 years old, especially when you didn't have a chance to say goodbye,” said Susana Villanueva Torres, David's aunt. Her sister, Maribel Villanueva, was a single mom. After her death, Torres and her husband took custody of David.

In a way, David’s elementary school teacher also became a sort of surrogate mom when he eventually returned to class, though Mayra Alvarado recalls not being prepared whatsoever to handle the death of a school parent. “I was just in shock. I was like, no, this can't be happening. I know [COVID deaths] happen especially in our communities. But I still was in disbelief."

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Susana Villanueva Torres

David Lara and his mom Maribel Villanueva celebrating his 10th birthday.

It’s been painful to lose so many of our elderly to COVID-19. But there are also many families, especially Latino families, grieving the deaths of those who are younger. Maribel Villanueva was one of 2,389 Latino residents between the ages of 34 and 49 in the state who died; by comparison 333 whites in that age group died. The ripple effect of death in those families has been life altering.

Being the Best Mom Despite Hardships

Torres had always thought of her older sister as resilient. Maribel — everyone called her Mari — was the middle child. “She fought the good fight when she was here," Torres said. "Like everybody else she had moments of hardship.”

Sitting on the front porch of her two-story home in Oakland, Torres said that hardship was one reason she and her husband welcomed Mari, her son and his grandmother to live under their wing, in a downstairs apartment, for little rent. “We grew up in a domestic violence, alcohol kind of environment. It was hard. I was able to cope in a different way than she did. She was very sensitive. David's dad not being around ... it was hard.”

Photo caption:

Photo by Beth LaBerge/KQED

Susana Villanueva Torres and her nephew David Lara sit in a hammock in the family's backyard in Oakland on June 10, 2021.

Torres said her sister was a terrific cook, and loved children, always babysitting her niece and nephew when they were young. Mari found work in a child care center and also cleaned homes. What Mari earned she spent on instilling in her son, David, a sense of possibility, Torres added.

On one occasion, David's mom saved up to take him to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Not having access to a car made the trip less convenient, but they managed with public transit. Tickets alone would have cost her almost $90. "And they stayed there for a weekend. Her plan was to take him to Disneyland for one of his birthdays," Torres said.

When Mari got sick, Torres was the one who drove her to the community clinic and then to the hospital, and connected with her via Zoom. She recalled telling her sister, “Stay strong, keep fighting. David, it's fine. He's here with us, don't worry about him.”

Photo caption:

Photo by Beth LaBerge/KQED

David Lara playing basketball in the family's backyard in Oakland on June 10, 2021. David said he's excited about playing basketball and soccer this summer. He'll also be taking swimming lessons, he said.

It fell on Torres to set up the last virtual visit with Mari and her son. She was also the one who had to make the hard decisions when the doctors said there was nothing more to be done.

"It just happened really quick," she said. "You don't have time to say goodbyes, [don't] have time to be there with them in their hardest moments.”

After Mari died on Oct. 2, Torres found herself trying to figure out the cost of the funeral. “You’re in the middle of making all the decisions and you’re in the middle of so much pressure, so it was hard to grieve.”

Church members brought them food and flowers. And another community, David's school, stepped up to help raise money for his mom's funeral.

Lessons on Empathy

David attends Manzanita SEED Dual Language Immersion Elementary School in Oakland where there was also grief and confusion upon learning one of the school’s parents had died of COVID-19.

Manzanita SEED draws students from the city's Fruitvale neighborhood, which is majority Latino and has been hard hit by the virus. When word spread that a parent from her school had died of COVID, David’s fifth grade teacher, Mayra Alvarado grew worried about how she could help her students process the news.

"I was just in shock," she said. "I was like, no, this can't be happening." Then, she learned it was David's mom.

Alvarado wondered what role she should take on to help David, so she kept checking in with Torres. “If he needs time, let him take time to catch up," she told Torres. "He's a very engaged student whenever he's in classes. He’s a really funny kid. He's just a pleasure to have in class.”

Photo caption:

Photo by Beth LaBerge/KQED

Mayra Alvarado and David Lara hug in the family's backyard in Oakland on June 10, 2021.

Alvarado knew how much Mari cared about David’s education. “I see a lot of the drive in David [because his mom] had this high expectation of him and just always wanted him to be on top of it.”

Both women decided it would be best for David to get back on Zoom with the class. But that raised more questions for Alvarado about how she should support the rest of the kids through the trauma of a classmate losing a parent.

Alvarado met first with David before he came back to class to see how he was feeling. They talked about how he would feel if some of his classmates wanted to reach out to him and talk about his mom. “He said no," recalled Alvarado. "Unless he brings it up, he doesn't want [to talk about] it. I was like, 'OK, I respect that. And thank you for letting me know. I'll let your classmates know.' "

Alvarado then worked with the school's behavioral therapist to create a space in her Zoom class for kids to discuss how they felt before David's return. When questions came up about the virus, Alvarado had to negotiate these sensitive discussions remotely, like when students shared in the chat that one of their family members had COVID-19. Fortunately no one else in the class lost a parent, but they could feel David's pain and fear.

“The empathy, right? Of knowing what it felt like to feel scared. Some kids were expressing in the chat, ‘We are young, I can’t imagine losing my parent at this age.’ There was a lot of empathy for David’s feelings,” Alvarado said.

Moving Forward From a Life-Altering Year

As David was returning to school, Torres and her husband decided it would be best for David to live with them. They moved him upstairs, where he could stay in the same home with them and his cousin. Torres found herself starting to make Mari’s green enchiladas, David’s favorite.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Susana Villanueva Torres

David Lara and his teacher Mayra Alvarado at the end of school party.

“I think he’s coping well. I think at the beginning it was just like everybody, did this really happen? He was in denial," said Torres. "He came downstairs one day and we talked and I said, 'Do you miss your mom?' He started crying. And I said, 'It's going to take a while. You know, years pass by and we are still going to miss her. And that's OK. If you need to cry, cry, if you need to scream, scream. Whatever you need to do. I'm always here if you want to talk about anything.' "

Alvarado, the teacher, reminded David how much his mom cared about his learning. “I know how proud she would be of you and how proud she is of all the work that you're doing,” she said. “How awesome [that] you're participating in class.”

At the end of the school year, Alvarado’s fifth grade class met up in person, masks on, at a nearby park. Torres was there, taking photos. She said David hugged everyone and then he hugged the air. He told her later he was hugging his mom.

In a photo from that day, David and his teacher Alvarado are both smiling widely at the camera. David did great, Alvarado said — as great as can be expected in a life-altering year.

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