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Remembering tío Mel and tía Amalia, lost to COVID

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

For nearly two years, we've been remembering some of the more than 900,000 people who've died of COVID-19 in the U.S. Samuel Lorenzo Jimenez and Amalia Ruiz Martinez emigrated from Mexico in the 1970s and married in Chicago. They both died in the summer of 2020 within two weeks of each other. Today their niece, Lili Ruiz, and Amalia's brother, Francisco Ruiz, remember Tio Mel and Tia Amalia.

LILI RUIZ: The earliest memory I have is when we used to live in Chicago, and all my family lived in this huge brownstone building - like, three floors and a basement. My uncle and my aunt, Tio Mel, Tia Amalia - they lived on the second floor. They have four daughters. To this day, I still call them las ninas.

We're actually from central Oaxaca. The village - it's Teotitlan del Valle. And in that village and surrounding villages, they speak different dialects of Zapoteco, and they also speak other types of dialects, too.

FRANCISCO RUIZ: (Through interpreter) We didn't leave the village for lack of money or lack of work because my parents had a bakery, and they were doing very well. The main problem that forced us to leave town was my father's alcohol problem. My dad started drinking a lot, and he became a very violent alcoholic.

L RUIZ: They came in the '70s. My uncle Totiano (ph) came, and then he brought my dad, and then he brought my uncle. My dad always tells me this. He says that back in that day, it was very easy to cross. It was, like, a line in the dirt. It was so easy to just go back and forth, you know, depending on what route you use.

(SOUNDBITE OF PETIT BISCUIT'S "SUNSET LOVER")

F RUIZ: (Through interpreter) And then we opened a bar in Chicago where people would come to dance and drink. And that's where Uncle Mel started helping us. He said, I can work at the bar if you want. And I also told Amalia, why don't you prepare some taquitos? Because we lived on the second floor of the bar, she could make something like carne asada tacos and sell them there. We told our clients, and people liked them a lot because she prepared a very good sauce.

To this day, no one else has prepared that sauce except for her and my mother. People came from the south of Chicago to eat some tacos and order sauce. They came for the sauce. And Mel and Amalia could save money that way until they collected enough. And they said, we are going to build a house back in the village.

L RUIZ: My aunt - she was, like, this, like, you know, heavyset woman, very jolly. I would say, like, jolly, very judgmental. Like, she would always be like, hey; why are you so skinny? Like, you need to eat more. Like, come on. Here. Are you not eating enough? What's going on? But she always cared about you.

And, you know, she was, like, the person who knew everything about the entire family. She was, like, that person who - you couldn't keep secrets from her because she would find out. And then the whole entire family knew, like, the next day (laughter).

F RUIZ: (Through interpreter) The anecdotes I remember about my sister Amalia - she always offered something to eat. You couldn't go to her home and not eat - yes, always. She would say, sit down. Let's eat something. And I would say, oh, I just had lunch. No, no, no, no, she said. And she was preparing something. And quickly, in two, three minutes, I already had a dish ready - very tasty.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WALKMEN SONG, "LINE BY LINE")

L RUIZ: So February 2020 was the last time I saw them because February 2020 I was in New York. And I flew back home because it was actually a quinceanera, and that was the last time the entire family got together.

My uncle and my aunt were going to move to el pueblo permanently. They were going to, like, retire and, like, move out there, and they had everything ready. She even bought a bread oven, a huge bread oven. And they - and my dad was telling me that they struggled so much to put it in her house because it was so big. And they did it. Then the pandemic happened.

F RUIZ: (Through interpreter) But there was already the news that in New York, things were pretty bad. Aunt Amalia and Uncle Mel were still in Joliet, Ill., and they didn't get to leave. And then Uncle Mel and Aunt Amalia weren't careful enough, and they got infected.

L RUIZ: Then after that is when - then my uncle passed away June 30, and then my aunt passed away July 11. So it was very traumatizing. To add on to that, try to move two bodies, like, from here over there. That was, like, a whole nother, like, jumping through a lot of loops and hoops and trying to get paperwork and just waiting. It was a very helpless experience because you want to get them out. You want to just lay them to rest, and you feel horrible.

(SOUNDBITE OF JORGE NEGRETE SONG, "MEXICO LINDO Y QUERIDO")

F RUIZ: (Through interpreter) Many people ask us, why do people want to go back to their village? It turns out that's where our roots are. I think that is one of the things that has made many Mexicans live with the idea of returning, yes, to go back there, yes. As Jorge Negrete's song says...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEXICO LINDO Y QUERIDO")

JORGE NEGRETE: (Singing in Spanish).

F RUIZ: (Through interpreter) If I die away from you, Mexico, let them say that I'm asleep.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEXICO LINDO Y QUERIDO")

NEGRETE: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miguel Macias
Miguel Macias is a Senior Producer at All Things Considered, where he is proud to work with a top-notch team to shape the content of the daily show.
Sarah Handel