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LATEST UPDATES: Tracking COVID-19 | Vaccines | Racial Injustice

La Familia Es Todo

Cover image for podcast episode

Juan Jose Covarrubias is pictured above in this undated photo collage.

Our local Latinx community has been hit hard by the pandemic; disproportionately hard.

In today’s special episode, we share one border family’s battle with COVID-19. They explain how they’re using their story to help other Mexican-American families like theirs.

It's a story about trust, and how living at the border can mean living in a place where trust sometimes requires translation.

The Covarrubias family’s fundraiser is here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/29p0mkof1c

Follow “Port of Entry” online at www.portofentrypod.org, or on Facebook (www.facebook.com/portofentrypodcast) or Instagram (www.instagram.com/portofentrypod).

Support our work at www.kpbs.org/donate. Search “Port of Entry” in the gifts section to get our sling bag as a thank-you gift. If your business or nonprofit wants to sponsor our show, email podcasts@kpbs.org.

Text or call the "Port of Entry" team at 619-452-0228‬ anytime with questions or comments about the show.

Phone dialing

Pablo Clip 42
Hi, my name is Pablo I'm with PCI party, with the public health department.

BEAT

Pablo Clip 43
The reason why I'm calling is because we were notified that you were exposed to someone who has suspected of having COVID or has tested positive for COVID-19….
Pablo Clip 44
Um, are you aware of this?

BEAT

Contact tracing calls like this one have been happening a lot since the start of the pandemic….in cities and towns all across the world.

And... here at the border, obviously, it’s a lot more effective if the caller speaks more than just English.

Pablo Clip 8
You know, they feel more comfortable when someone speaks to them in Spanish….

This is Pablo Ramos. He grew up on both sides of the border, in Tijuana and Los Angeles.
His parents are actually undocumented.

Pablo Clip 8
And it's not like. Like, um, someone who just learned Spanish as someone who understands the culture and where they're coming from and has lived through, through what they've lived through as well.

Pablo is one of a small army of bilingual contact tracers here at the border…

Folks who contract with the county’s public health department to help to try to stop the virus from spreading among the region’s Spanish speakers.

BEAT

Sometimes, though....people who pick up Pablo’s calls think he’s part of some kind of weird scam..

But Pablo…

He’s actually gotten pretty good at earning their trust…

Especially when the people on the other side of the line find out he speaks fluent Spanish...proper border slang and all.

Pablo Clip 31
Oh, definitely. Yeah. I mean, some people, I mean, they’ve even said it. They're like, yeah, there's this person that called me in English and I just didn't feel like I was, I was going to be able to trust them. And then I talk to them in Spanish now and, you know, I'll joke around with them. And, and you know, when I'm asking some questions and you know, we, we have a couple of laughs here and there and, you know, and then they open up and they're really friendly and they're really thankful that we're taking the time to really understand what they're going through. Um, see how we can help them, um, and just be there to listen because sometimes they just want somebody to listen to and, and rant because you know, this pandemic has not been easy for anybody.
Colin Clip 21
I always joke with my patients “Soy Mexicano” because I can say two words of Spanish, you know?

This is Colin Smyth.

Colin Clip 21
And, uh, you know, they make fun of it. They make fun of me. If you're willing to get made fun of, then I, you know, it builds trust. I definitely think that,

Colin is a nurse in San Diego.

Colin Clip 26.5
I work at the hospitals there and, um, I worked in many COVID units for the past year, but I'm actually a float nurse, meaning I go to all the different units, but the last year has been pure. COVID pretty much.

So yeah...Colin’s jobs are in San Diego….

But...he actually moved to Mexico a few years ago and crosses the border to go to work.

And Colin often finds himself leaning heavily on what little Spanish he’s learned by living south of the border.

BEAT

Colin Clip 5
I would need to employ my Spanish skills. Like I can get through a day with the simplest directions with the patient, uh, Spanish. My Spanish is at that point, it's still terrible. Don't get me wrong. Uh, grammatically, I don't even want to know how bad I sound, but they, I could give them basic directions.

BEAT

Colin told me a story about one of his Spanish-speaking COVID patients…

He says the man’s experience echoes a lot of moments he spent with Spanish-speaking folks who were separated from their families and friends…

alone and scared in a hospital where no one spoke their language…

Colin was using his best broken Spanish to convince this patient to lay on his stomach instead of his back…

It might seem like a strange request, but it's actually a common technique that has a big impact in getting oxygen levels to shoot back up quickly.

Colin Clip 22
His anxiety was just so high, uh, just super, super high. And, you know, you said he was entirely Spanish speaking and, um, I had to like sit there and talk with this guy for 15 minutes to calm his anxiety and talk to him about regular things.
Colin Clip 23
In that 15 minutes of time that you spent talking about, I don't care, Rosarito...Tijuana...what the food is like, you know, like that little bit of time.

BEAT

Colin Clip 23
And it makes them look at you as a person and not just a nurse. Um, who's just doing their job. And if you do that, that's everything, you know, if they believe you're you actually want them to get better than they are now ready to do everything you ask them to do.
Colin Clip 23
It Builds trust.

BEAT

Building trust...

A lot of the plan to beat this pandemic relies on health officials gaining the public’s trust...

And...people like Pablo and Colin…

They’re just two tiny pieces of this huge, complicated puzzle that is battling a virus at the border….

A place where trust….sometimes requires translation.

BEAT

On the U.S. side of the border…

The Mexican-American community has been hit hard by the pandemic.

….disproportionately hard…

BEAT

So many Latin people have gotten sick..died…lost jobs…

BEAT

There are lots of reasons why the Mexican-American community is getting hit so hard…

Big and deep rooted social, economic and systemic issues are at play.

But a big part of the problem comes back to that trust.

Jose Clip 30
you know, there, there's so many, so many factors that I think are against, against our culture, for sure. Um, and not even only that, but also even talking within our own family discussing. The vaccine and how they're, they're being spread so much in misinformation on social media or they're being, they're being told something to be scared of at the government's trying to like, you know, do things to them. And, you know, it's like, it's a vaccine the doctors know better, you know, then your friend from around the corner who called to tell you something...

BEAT

From KPBS and PRX, this is Port of Entry.

Where we tell cross-border stories...that connect us...

I’m Alan Lilienthal…

Today..We’ve got a story about one border family’s battle with COVID-19…

It’s a Mexican-American family who’s hoping their story might be able to help other families like theirs rebuild trust in their families AND in the public health system that’s trying to reach them.

MIDROLL 1SILENCE

OK...so...I want to tell you about Santiago Covarrubias…

Santiago sounds like he could be my homie….because he loved to cook.

SOUND: BROTHERS COOKING

And, like me, He also loved to sing...

SOUND: Santiago Singing

Carmen Clip 9
So that was his absolute passion…

This is Carmen Covarrubias...Santiago’s daughter.

Carmen Clip 9
You know, he had mariachi and he always sang. you know, when we were younger, he would go in the bathroom and he'd have a little karaoke machine and he'd start recording, you know? And when that red light was on in the bathroom, we could not disturb. Laughs.

BEAT

Santiago was a big man with a loud, booming voice…

A little intimidating if you didn’t know him personally…

But actually….

Carmen Clip 8
My dad was like a big Teddy bear, you know?
Carmen Clip 11
He was just a great man. You know, he was, he was a good, good man. Um, I can go on and on and on, but we'll sit here for like five hours talking about my dad,
Carmen Clip 29
He was definitely our rock of our family.

BEAT

OK...so… the Covarrubias family…

They’re a big family centered in Chula Vista…a city in San Diego County just twenty minutes north of the U.S.-Mexico border...

And..like a lot of Mexican-American families here…

They have members on both sides of the wall…

And despite the border between them...the family is super close….

Cousins are really more like siblings…

Carmen Clip 24
We grew up very tight, very close, always at one another's homes.

Big family get-togethers filled with lots of laughter and Mariachi singalongs are sorta their thing.

BEAT

Santiago Covarrubias was one of the patriarchs of the family….

And, he was always getting nominated to cook his famous homemade carnitas and chicharrones for the gatherings….

Carmen Clip 25
delicious. Everyone wanted that too. Every time we would go to parties, Hey, can Santiago make the food? You know,

BEAT

Basically...for the Covarrubias crew…‘la familia’ es todo.

Here’s Carmen’s cousin, Jose.

Jose Clip 29
We didn't have much, you know, we come from very humble, humble beginnings, but you know, there was a lot of love and there's a lot of pride where we came from and pride in our last name and who we are. And, um, Yeah. And just Familia and family that's, you know, that's what it was all about for us growing up.

BEAT FADE

For the Covarrubiases…

The trouble started in November…

Right as COVID cases were beginning to skyrocket on both sides of the border..

Santiago was in Mexico dealing with legal issues.

And while he was there, his sister-in-law passed away.

As a family man, Carmen says Santiago felt like there was just no way he could miss the funeral for his wife’s sister.

BEAT

Look...this is a close-knit Mexican-American family...a family that shows up for each other...especially in moments of need.

BEAT

Santiago and the rest of the family had been taking social distancing, mask-wearing and staying home pretty seriously...they trusted the advice from the CDC and public health officials…

But...the family had made it almost a year through the pandemic without anyone getting super sick or dying…

So, like a lot of us, Santiago started relaxing...unfortunately, right at the wrong time.

Carmen again told her dad not to go to the funeral...but she said he told her there are just some things...like the death of a family member… where you have to put some trust in God...and take a risk so you can be there for your family…

BEAT

So…

Santiago flew to the funeral...to be by his family’s side.

A few days later, though…

Santiago just didn’t feel right

But Carmen says he was the last to admit it.

Carmen Clip 13
….I dont know if its the machismo in them… Where they have this pride where they don't want to say, yeah, I'm feeling sick.

Carmen says Santiago talked to his family over the phone -- he told them he must’ve caught a bad cold.

But he never lost his sense of smell or taste…

So he assured them there was no way it was COVID.

Carmen Clip 13
I would ask my dad, how are you feeling? And he would tell me, I'm fine. I'm fine. I don't want you to worry, but I can tell, you know, you know, your parents.
Carmen Clip 30
finally, I started realizing he was getting worse. So I told my dad, you need to come back now.

Eventually, Carmen convinced Santiago to fly back to Tijuana.

And when he got there, his brother, Juan Jose, immediately saw that Santiago was in way worse shape than he was letting on…

BEAT FADE

Carmen Clip 7
So when my dad finally came back, um, my uncle picked him up at the airport in Tijuana and took them straight to the hospital….
Carmen Clip 7
They called me around three o'clock in the morning to tell me that my dad was COVID positive. Um, and they were going to admit him.

BEAT FADE
COVID rules prevented the family from being able to visit.

And...Carmen says it was really hard to connect with her dad.

BEAT

Carmen Clip 15
It was bad because he couldn't really hear us. Um, So when we would try to communicate with him, it was hard because he already is going through hearing problems. And then we have this machine blowing in him and it was really hard to communicate.
Carmen Clip 16
I was on the doctors: You need to call me every day. You need to call me when this happens or whatever, you know….

BEAT

Carmen Clip 17
That has to be the hardest thing I believe when you have not just a parent, but a loved one, um, in the hospital and you can't even be by their side. So that it's very hard, you know? Um, I feel very bad because I was not able to be there with him in the room to tell my dad everything's going to be okay, you got this, you're going to fight through this. You know? And that was the toughest thing that we struggled with accepting the fact that we can't even be with him.

BEAT

Santiago was having trouble breathing.

So, he got put on a ventilator…

And...from there... it was a quick downward spiral.

BEAT

On Nov. 28...just one week after he went to the hospital.

Santiago…. took his last breath.

BEAT

Carmen Clip 22
I never thought that this is how my dad would go out. You know, I always thought, Oh, you know, old age or something, but COVID, you know, took him.

BEAT

The Covarrubias family was crushed by Santiago’s death.

But...they didn’t really get time to properly mourn…

BEAT FADE

Because just a few weeks later…two more Covarrubias family members got the virus.

Carmen Clip 31
So when we called my uncle, um, we said, Tio, you know, how are you feeling? And his response was, I don't feel good. I'm sick. So when he said that, we knew.

Stay with us.
MIDROLL 2
Jose Clip 10
I got sick in March of last year and I had, I had it really, really bad.

This is Jose Covarrubias….Carmen’s cousin…So, Santiago is his tio…

Jose works in the fashion industry across the country in Brooklyn, New York…

So, he was right in the middle of the first big outbreak there last year...

Jose Clip 10
….. You know, at the time it was Brooklyn was the epicenter of the world, you know, and we didn't know a lot about it. It was, you know, it was very scary.

BEAT

Jose says he’s still dealing with long-term effects from COVID.

So even now...a year later... he goes to the doctor every two weeks to treat high blood pressure, COVID fog brain and joint inflammation.

But Jose says the worst part... is that his sense of smell and taste aren’t back at 100 percent yet.

Jose Clip 11
So, you know, I tend to eat foods that I know that I remember. So I can just, you know, I have an idea of what everything tastes like, what I remember from, you know, so….

Jose Clip 10
And, um, I just remember when I was recovering, I was like, I don't ever want anybody in my family to feel, to have to be this, the sick cause it was, it was really bad.

BEAT

So….Jose’s dad... Juan Jose…. was actually a lot like his tio Santiago….

Here’s Jose and Carmen talking about the two Covarrubias brothers.

Jose Clip 5
He was born after your dad. So, um, About a year apart. Yeah. Mexican twins.

BEAT

Jose Clip 5
Um, so they were always together where everyone went, the other one, you know, they dressed alike. They, they liked the same things. So, uh, my dad, uh, very hardworking, you know, he was strict when we were growing up, but he was all about love and, you know, um, you knew you were loved for sure. Uh, funny though. He loved to make people laugh. He was a big jokester. Um, he didn't like to dwell on things. He didn't like to be sad. He didn't like to. Worry.

BEAT

Jose Clip 6
My dad was really big into yard sales and estate sales. So we would go and, you know, uh, go to auctions and buy all the stuff and then we would clean it up and then we'd go to the swap, meet on the weekends and, um, you know, sell. And he would have me there translating. Cause he always said that people don't want to argue with a little boy. So he, and you know, he spoke well enough, but he knew that if he had me there. You know, negotiating, it was easier for the sell.

Juan Jose lived part time by himself in an apartment in Tijuana…

And part-time in Chula Vista with one of Jose’s sisters, Monica.

Jose Clip 7
Monica was our, she was the baby of the family..Uh, she. Was silently strong, very caring, very loving, took care of everybody. She was one of my dad's caretakers; they lived together. Um, she had three beautiful. She has, she has three beautiful children that she was very protective of and showered with love and yeah, she was just a wonderful mom. Very dedicated. very dedicated to her children.
Jose Clip 8
But she was, she, you know, my little brother says she was the best of us for sure. She was like, she was our little princess for sure.

BEAT FADE

After the holidays...Monica started feeling sick.

And just days later...Juan Jose started feeling sick, too.

Jose Clip 9
yeah, people, I feel let their guard down. Cause my sister was so strict with my dad and her kids. Like she was really, really basically locked them up in a tower for a whole year, almost a whole year. Um, you know, and then, you know, people kind of started. Relaxing over the holidays and having like small little gatherings….

So yeah...probably at one of those little family gatherings, both Monica and Juan Jose got COVID...and both of them eventually ended up in the hospital.

And the family did everything they could to stay in constant contact even though they weren’t allowed to visit...

Jose Clip 13
My sister was able to keep her phone, so. She was able to FaceTime with us and checking on everybody and constantly be worrying about us when we were just telling her to worry about you. Like we got this, you know, we're taking care of your kids, we're cleaning up your house. We're taking down your Christmas decorations. She was like, no, I'm like, no, I got this. Laughs.

BEAT

Jose Clip 12
My dad, you never, we never trusted him cause he would always lie and say he was fine. Um, I was more worried about my dad because he's older and he has to, they had, they both have pigs, both had pre-existing conditions, but I was like Monica will be fine... she'll bounce back, it'll be eat, you know, she'll be fine. Um, we were more worried about my dad.

BEAT FADE

Juan Jose HBD CLIP

This is Juan Jose, leaving a happy birthday message for his son Jose back in 2019…

Juan Jose HBD CLIP

After Juan Jose’s first week in the hospital…

He was actually doing really well..

His oxygen levels were up and he was looking good.

There was even talk of him being discharged.

But that’s one of the many scary things about COVID-19...

It can be unpredictable.

And things can go south really quickly.

BEAT

Jose Clip 14
I haven't really had a chance to really process everything because it's happened so fast,
Jose Clip 14
but, um, no, I moved away many, many years ago. So for me, I've always had scenarios in my head of how everything was gonna go down with my dad or my family, you know, and never once I think I wasn't going to be able to get there in time to be with my dad and hold his hand, or be able to say goodbye in person.Takes deep breath.
Jose Clip 14
But, um, COVID, you know, you, you can't, cause you're not allowed in. No on the day that they knew that it was probably his last day. And, um, we had to make a decision to end his care. Then they allowed us to go up to the hospital and go into his ICU, to the ICU floor, and from his glass door, we got to say goodbye. And that was it. And what, what really struck me more than anything was we weren't the only family on that floor saying goodbye. You know, there was little pockets on that floor. There were little pockets out front praying you can't all go in and say goodbye. It's just, they limit the number of people. So you have to make a choice of who can go up there or who wants to go up there. And, um, yeah, that, that for me was like, now that I think about it and, and like, I have a moment to like breathe and, you know, just him being alone really. It just makes me sad and a little bit angry.

BEAT

Juan Jose…. passed away on Jan. 27.

BEAT

At this point...Monica was in a different hospital...in stable condition...and slowly getting better.

But then she started getting blood clots…

And on Jan. 31st, one of those blood clots gave her a massive stroke.

Jose Clip 15
And they said that she had, you know, just severe brain trauma and she was paralyzed and the quality of life wouldn't be. Wouldn't be there if she, if she even survived the day. So we were able to actually go to the hospital and because she was COVID free that day, they tested her. We actually were able to go into her room with her, my mom, my sister, and her three kids, kids. And we were able to say goodbye. We were able to hold her hand. We were able to hurt, you know, and I thought that that was such a gift for her kids and for us, because they were there with, when she took her last breath and we were able to FaceTime the whole family. And, but for me it was like the gifts because we didn't get to say goodbye to my dad, but I felt that my dad and her dad were there, you know, taking her, taking her and making sure that she was crossing over, you know, Peacefully.

BEAT

Four days after her dad Juan Jose lost his battle with COVID-19…

Monica...lost her battle, too.

BEAT FADE

Jose Clip 16
One tragedy is enough. Two at the same time. And then also compounded with the November happening with my tio is just, you know, we're just kind of like been hit so many times at once, you know, it's, um, we haven't recovered and I don't know how long it's going to be till, or we recover because even we're so busy that we don't really allow ourselves to, to think or to dwell. So I'm, you know, I'm just waiting for the moment where it's really going to hit me. Um, And it's a little scary to think about when that's really going to happen and where

Funeral Clip 2
Music
Funeral Clip 3
Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do some people live long and full lives while others’ lives are cut short? Why do we have a pandemic?
Funeral Clip
I am the good shepherd says the lord...

At the funeral for Juan Jose and Monica back in March….

Sadness hung in the air the way it always does when death is involved…

BEAT

But Carmen and Jose say there was also this overwhelming feeling of love and support…

Their family...their friends….and even people they’ve never met...folks from inside and outside the local Latin community….. really showed up for them…

At last check, the family’s gofundme had raised over $25,000 to help cover funeral expenses…

Their families’ story was covered on local TV news...so, a lot of people felt really connected to the Covarrubiases.

Maybe that’s why almost 2,000 people have watched the live stream of Juan Jose and Monica’s services on Facebook.

Here’s part of the live stream of the funeral that really stuck with my producer Kinsee...It’s Jose’s and Monica’s brother, Marcos, sharing some sweet memories of their dad.

Funeral Clip 5
My dad, when I was a little boy, ….I would sit on his lap and you give me the biggest, the best hugs. Squeeze me so tight and he made me laugh. I loved kissing him on the cheek. I loved it. It always tickled, my face…. Weeps. I'll never forget.

BEAT

Even though Carmen, Jose and the rest of their family are obviously still processing all the pain…

The family is thankful for the positives…

Like all that incredible community support.

BEAT

And then there’s the closeness they’ve regained to by going through the tragedies together…..

Jose Clip 22
I really, for me, I think this is a big wake up, wake up, call and a life lesson for my family. You know, it's bringing us closer….

Before the Covarrubias family lost three of its own in the pandemic,

Life had done what it does to a lot of families these days...even the tightest ones…

Some of them had started drifting apart…

But Jose says this experience has knitted the family back together...and now they’re back to a place where they’re looking out for each other... trusting one another to help the family navigate the pandemic and make choices that will keep everyone safe from here on out.

Jose Clip 22
I hope we can continue. We can continue this closeness. I hope we can continue checking in on each other. And we're such a big family, but you know, a tragedy always brings everything tighter.

BEAT FADE

Jose and Carmen say they see one more, crucial, silver lining in their family’s tragedy…

They’ve been using their story as a cautionary tale for the larger Mexican-American community.

Because there’s so much distrust out there --- they personally know a lot of folks spreading misinformation about how the virus spreads….or who are afraid of getting the vaccine…

So..they’re telling everyone they know to listen to the public health advice…

keep wearing masks…..

and get the shots…

don’t wait until it’s too late.

BEAT

Jose Clip 31
we're facing people who only trust. The phone call or the text message or, you know, well, I heard and I saw in, I read, you know, that's, am I wrong? Carmen's sticking her head. Yeah, no. How many times do we tell our parents different things, but they, you know, they would listen to their commodity or their competitor instead of listening to us, you know, we would give them something to read. We're like read this. And they were like, no, no, I heard, I was told, so that's so true.

BEAT

Jose Clip 33
what is I always like, what's the takeaway for this situation? What is it a life's lesson? Cause you got to have something out of this tragedy. Right? And I think it's just the platform to be able to share our story and let people like us are people who have families like us know that this is a real serious thing and it's out there and you have to be careful and there has to be better. Education, there has to be, you know, we have to get the truth out there instead of like letting our people, our community, our raza, you know, um, suffer and not get the right information. I think that's, that's been our platform more than anything else.

BEAT

Jose Clip 22
Um, I hope. The virus can slow down. I hope people can take precautions. Like people have to be responsible, you know, not only for yourself, but for everybody else, like you have to care, you have to wear your mask. You have to like be careful, um, get the vaccine if you're able to get the vaccine. Um, and I just hope that we can. Just get over this and just go back to a day where we can actually see faces again. And we remember what it was like to eat in a restaurant or, you know, um, go to a movie theater...I just, I hope we can go back to that… sooner than later.

BEAT
Next time on the podcast….

We kick off a new series on medical tourism at the border with a San Diego woman who gets diagnosed with cancer...again.

But this time…

She says she’s gonna do her own thing, and skip the chemo.

Maria 1 Clip 4
And I told them I wasn't going to do it this time. I was going to go the holistic route and I was going to do my own research

Research….that would eventually lead her…..to Tijuana.

BEAT

Port of Entry is written and produced by Kinsee Morlan. Emily Jankowski is the co-producer and director of sound design. Alisa Barba edited this episode. Lisa Morissette is operations manager and John Decker is the interim associate general manager of content.

This program is made possible (in part) by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people."

And hey, while I’ve got you, we need your help. We want to know what we should call our most loyal listeners.

Like, what if we called y’all border crossers? Border babies maybe? Or should we go with Fronterizos….See...we really do need your help coming up with something that makes sense. So, call (619) 452-0228‬ and leave a message. Tell us who you are, where you live and what you think we should call our listeners. Thanks in advance.

Port of Entry podcast branding

Port of Entry

These are cross-border stories that connect us. Border people often inhabit this in-between place. From KPBS and PRX, “Port of Entry” tells personal stories from this place — stories of love, hope, struggle and survival from border crossers, fronterizxs and other people whose lives are shaped by the wall. Rooted in San Diego with tendrils reaching into Tijuana. Hosted by Alan Lilienthal, produced by Kinsee Morlan and sound design by Emily Jankowski.