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Missing the hugs and trips back home: Latino families share coronavirus' impacts

“I was overcome with a brief wave of sadness for what was no more," a Latina executive says about her city's empty streets. Another man misses kissing and hugging his mom.
Image: Infante family
Emil Infante with his children in his home in suburban Pinecrest, Fla.Courtesy Infante family

For over half a year now, the nation has been grappling with a litany of illness, deaths, lost jobs and shuttered businesses as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

But COVID-19 has also disrupted families' familiar and beloved rituals—Sunday dinners, birthday parties, holiday celebrations and vacations to visit loved ones overseas.

The first blow hit Manuel Iguina, 59, a restaurateur and chef in Washington, D.C., in the early spring. Business was dying at his brasserie in Georgetown, the High Street Café. The bills were mounting. The virus was spreading through Washington.

“When I saw this was coming, I let go of some of my staff, with a heavy heart, gave them two weeks’ pay, all I could do," he said. At the end of March, he said he knew the business was not sustainable, sold everything in the restaurant and shut it down.

“I was affected immensely. I was depressed the whole month of April a lot of May, I didn’t want to see anyone.’’ His grown daughters from a previous marriage, Daniela and Francisca, had helped him run the restaurant and now were “heartbroken, devastated.”

“I had to get over it,” he says. “I had to bite the bullet.”

He and Karla, 48, his wife and business partner, canceled their 10th anniversary celebration in her native Mexico, and with schools shut down, they had to learn how to give lessons to their children, Carlos Manuel, 8, and Julieta Deidre, 6, while at the same time working from home, she with the International Development Bank and he consulting with restaurant industry entrepreneurs.

“The one thing we didn’t want to feel was isolation,” Karla says. They started FaceTime visits with relatives and occasionally threw socially distanced backyard picnics at their home in Springfield, Virginia, a suburb of Washington.

In July, they made their annual summer holiday trip to Puerto Rico. “It’s a beautiful family thing, going to paradise,’’ he says. They want their children to know relatives and love the island where Manuel was born. On quiet beaches free of tourists, their small family alone, they left the pandemic gloom behind for a few weeks.

Manual Iguina and his family at Ocean Park, Puerto Rico.Courtesy Iguina family

“We are resilient, we always have been,” Karla says. Now, they are making plans for life after Covid-19. Things are beginning to take shape. The children are back in school and they are laying out plans for another venture, a casual dine-in and takeout place they call Casa Piko, Manuel’s nickname. And Karla is trying to figure out how to bring her 83-year-old mother, who lives in Chiapas, Mexico, to Washington for Christmas.

"The hardest thing"

“I’ve not hugged or kissed my mother for five months!” Emil Infante, an international lawyer based in Miami, his voice breaking.

His everyday life, at his office downtown and at home with his wife, Lourdes, and their three children, changed overnight in the spring when the coronavirus hit Florida and everything shut down.

“It was different to suddenly be at home all the time,’’ he says on the phone from his home in suburban Pinecrest. “I miss the lack of movement. I miss my clients. Personally, it’s been very difficult, having to interact constantly with family 24 hours a day, breakfast, lunch and dinner and time in between.

Jade Kerr Dupler, a psychotherapist who deals with these issues at Westchester Psychological Services, in Mount Kisco, N.Y., calls it “mutual exhaustion.”

“The pandemic is a double-edged sword. Parents who are now working from home can spend more time with each other and their children, but too much time together can produce more tension and conflict," Dupler said. "Everyone is at home, all the time, in everyone’s spaces.’’

Infante, 50, says his teenage daughter took it hardest. “She was stuck at home, with no friends, no one her age to talk to. She was angry at the world, frustrated.” His younger twin children adjusted more easily. “They have each other, they play together, they talk.”

To escape from the grind, they had occasional backyard parties with close friends and drove south to the Florida Keys. “It was a safe haven,” he said.

“I can’t complain," he said, saying he's privileged to have a comfortable house, a job, "and can get away to the Keys.”

No hugs, no visits to family abroad

Infante's mother admits it takes a toll. “I am a very social person. Being closed up is terrible for me. I feel very alone.” Ivette, 72, a manufacturer’s representative, said she misses her frequent trips to see lifelong friends and relatives in Puerto Rico, where she lived most of her life.

To break the monotony, she gets together with a few friends and visits her son often to swim a few laps in the pool and see her grandchildren — but socially distanced. “It kills me I can’t hug and kiss them.”

“What I missed most was my summer with family in Spain,” Arnold Ramirez, 76, a Costa Rican who has lived in New York most of his life. He and his wife, Julia, 74, spend most every summer with their grown children, grandchildren and cousins in Cercedilla, a small hill town outside Madrid, where Julia is from.

This year, there was no visit to Spain, no fresh mountain air to enjoy and no big family dinners to attend. Instead, he and Julia take 3-mile walks in their neighborhood, Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, and he entertains himself watching international soccer, posting game commentaries on Facebook, and talking via WhatsApp with players and coaches he knows around the world from his 40 years coaching.

Once a week they drive to Armonk, a hamlet in the Westchester suburbs, to visit their daughter, Liane Ramirez Swierk, 50, executive vice president at Goodman Media International, her husband, Jeff, 52, a marketing executive, and their teenage son, Derek. They lounge in the backyard, snack and catch up, but a basic family ritual is missing. No hugs and kisses. Arnold says, “I miss that.”

Grandfather Arnold Ramirez, daughter Liane Swierk, grandson Derek Swierk, and grandmother Julia Ramirez catch up during a bi-weekly visit.Courtesy Liane Ramirez

The pandemic came soon after Liane and her family moved from their longtime apartment in New York City's Washington Heights, three blocks from her parents. Just as they were adjusting to their son’s new school, the new house and the suburbs, everything shut down.

“Virtual home schooling began in March,’’ she says. “We were all learning how to adjust on the fly. In addition to having a full-time job, working from home, we had to make sure that Derek was checking his school schedule, participating in Zooms and doing his homework. It was exhausting and made us cranky.”

That’s not uncommon, says Dupler, the psychotherapist. “Some of the most common family conflicts we’ve noticed involve remote learning, getting kids motivated … The daily tensions impact many family relationships.”

At the same time, Jeff’s mother, Celeste, 74, was suffering a respiratory illness that put her in the high-risk category. Before Covid-19, they visited her twice a month in New Jersey for leisurely lunches. That stopped with the virus and for three months they didn’t visit her.

Missing family visits is only one kind of loss. “I recently went back to the office in midtown to retrieve a few items to bring to my home office and it was a ghost town,” Liane said. “I was overcome with a brief wave of sadness for what was no more.”

That is not all she misses. “I have a tight-knit group of longtime girlfriends, so not being able to see them in person has been very hard.”

She missed her best friend’s birthday, a woman she has known for over 35 years. “She had a social-distanced gathering. But I was scheduled for minor surgery that week and couldn’t be around people. We Zoom, FaceTime and text to stay in touch, but I look forward to the day when we can convene again and pick up where we left off, over a cocktail!”

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