More than 250 Mexican immigrants have died from the virus in the New York area. Many of them longed to be buried in their birthplace.
When Javier Morales, 48, died at a hospital in Hackensack, N.J., his family decided not to tell his brother Martin right away. Martin Morales was also battling the coronavirus, and they worried about how he would handle the news.
But Mr. Morales, 39, found out from a friend later that night, in his New Jersey home. The next day, on April 7, he died, too.
“My family likes to think that he could not live without his older brother. They were best friends,” said Melanie Cruz Morales, 19, the niece of both men. “They had to go together.”
Since then, Ms. Cruz and her twin sister have been trying to raise thousands of dollars and navigate the bureaucracies of two countries to grant the last wish of their uncles — to be buried in their birthplace, the tiny village of Santa Catarina Yosonotú in Oaxaca, Mexico.
If the coronavirus outbreak has transformed life around New York City, it has also transformed death. Lonely deaths are followed by lonely burials. Urns are handed over without the usual ceremonies and tributes to the lost.
For the area’s Mexican immigrants — a community already hit hard by the virus — the pandemic has brought another cruel change. Mexican families typically send bodies home, for flower-strewn Catholic burials, and to give relatives the chance to glimpse their loved ones again after long separations. The tradition is so important that Mexican consulates around the country have long helped to repatriate the bodies of immigrants.
But that sacred rite has come to a halt.
More than 250 Mexican immigrants are known to have died of Covid-19 in the New York area, according to the Mexican government. But officials in the area are not issuing the transit permits needed for repatriation, and parts of Mexico have closed their borders to bodies, fearing contagion. The Mexican Consulate in New York, which has temporarily shut its doors, is advising families who call to consider cremation; ashes can far more easily be sent home.
Ms. Cruz said her family was crushed to hear this news. “Because my grandmother who is back in Mexico, all she ever wanted was to see her sons.”
“Mexican families always love to bring their loved one back home,” said Stephanie García Morales, a funeral director at International Funeral Service of New York, and herself the child of Mexican immigrants. “They want the body there. They don’t want ashes there. They want the physical body. The person there in Mexico.”
The blow is not just emotional. When the consulate still shipped bodies back, families usually paid only the modest price of a burial in Mexico. Now, relatives who in many cases have lost jobs and drained their savings to pay medical bills also have to come up with thousands of dollars to pay for cremations, a cost that often includes a storage fee, because of the deep backlog at crematories.
In New York City, such families have faced an added strain: Until very recently, they were given two weeks to find a funeral home to claim their loved one’s bodies, or they would be buried in the city’s potter’s field on Hart Island.
This week, city officials revised the plan, announcing bodies will be frozen to give families more time to claim them before they are interred on Hart Island.
The fear of losing a loved one to a mass grave was profound. “That’s what you’re accustomed to seeing in war-torn countries,” said Francisco Moya, a councilman from a part of Queens ravaged by the outbreak. For some immigrant communities, the comparison was all too real.
Rather than wait, dozens of Mexican families have turned to social media and to crowdfunding sites, seeking to raise money from their communities and beyond to cremate their relatives’ remains and send their ashes back to hometowns.
In the process, GoFundMe has become the closest thing to a memorial that exists for the Mexican victims of Covid-19 around New York.
There are pages for women and men; construction workers, kitchen workers, hotel employees, nursing home attendants, babysitters. The victims include recent arrivals and immigrants who came decades ago, such as Edmundo García, 62, who worked at Salem and Sons Bakery in Union City, N.J., for 21 years, until the day he got sick.
The victims are often remembered with a single grainy photograph. The pleas are humble; the reason families give for needing help are often the same: “We want Adrián to be sent to Mexico,” says the page for 39-year-old Adrián Hernández, who worked at Carmine’s Italian Restaurant in Times Square and supported his two children in Puebla.
David Rosales Flores, whose father, Remigio Rosales Flores, died in his Brooklyn home, said families like his have been through ordeals. All they want now is to give their relatives in Mexico the chance for a final goodbye — “el último adiós.”
The pages barely hint at the hardships: the mountain of bills, the unemployed spouses and confused children, the squabbles with relatives. “My aunts were really upset that we made the page,” said Leslie Puebla, who lost her father, Tomás Puebla, a longtime line cook at diners on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “They said, ‘A lot of people are jobless and they’re struggling to make ends meet.’”
But Ms. Puebla, 22, did not know how else to raise $5,200 for a funeral service for the father she adored, she said. Her mother, a housekeeper, is out of work. She still has a job, doing outreach for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, but earns $22 an hour.
“It’s brutal what’s happening right now,” said Javier H. Valdés, the co-director of Make the Road New York, an advocacy organization that has lost 40 of its working-class Latino members to Covid-19. “There’s a lot of anxiety and frustration. First and foremost, how do you cover the cost?”
When Gregorio Rosales, a 69-year-old livery cabdriver, died at a hospital in the Bronx, his nieces wondered the same thing. Mr. Rosales — their Tío Goyo — was a single father who worked sporadically while shuttling his 13-year-old to medical appointments. She had been born with a host of health issues, and her mother had died of cancer.
He had no savings, but had always wanted to go back to Mexico. “That’s the dream. You think you’ll go where you belong,” said his niece Marisol Rojas, 35. “You don’t think you’re going to end up dead in the Bronx.”
Ms. Rojas and her sister Dulce Mojica, 39, began working the phones. “My sister and I have been calling every single person we can think of to ask for help to pay for the cremation,” said Ms. Mojica. “I created a GoFundMe for long-distance relatives. Little by little, we have been gathering money.”
New York City offers burial assistance to low-income families. But the relatives of undocumented immigrants like Mr. Rosales are excluded from receiving the $900 in aid, because the application requires a Social Security number both for the person who died and the person requesting assistance.
Mr. Moya, the Queens councilman, is proposing that the city create an emergency fund to extend burial assistance to all low-income families who have lost loved ones to Covid-19, regardless of immigration status. He also wants to expand the program to cover the cost of cremations as well as burials.
“Let’s allow these people to say goodbye to their loved ones in a dignified way,” Mr. Moya said.
When the Morales brothers got sick, their wages evaporated. One was a long-haul trucker and one worked in a produce warehouse, and what they had saved did not go far.
Their nieces, college students who are able to legally live and work in the country through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, were left in charge.
They created a GoFundMe page for their uncles, and took to Twitter, hoping that other immigrants of indigenous Mixtec descent might come to the family’s aid. By this week, they had raised more than $20,000.
Their uncles’ funeral might not be as they had imagined it, Ms. Cruz said. There might not be caskets hoisted on their siblings’ shoulders and carried to the cemetery. But there will at the very least be two urns, lifted high over Santa Catarina Yosonotú, the village their uncles helped sustain for so long.
“If anything were ever to happen to me,” Javier Morales had once told the mother of the twins, “I would always want to go back to my land.”
He had become a U.S. citizen, and could travel back and forth easily with his new passport. His brother, Martin, was undocumented, and had never gone back at all.