'It was one after another': Tightknit Massachusetts family, ravaged by COVID-19, honors those they lost

Jeannette Hinkle, Cape Cod Times
·11 min read
Mi Pueblo, a restaurant in Hyannis, Mass., displays a portrait of its owner, Enrique Valdovinos, who died of COVID-19.
Mi Pueblo, a restaurant in Hyannis, Mass., displays a portrait of its owner, Enrique Valdovinos, who died of COVID-19.

HYANNIS, Mass. – The Valdovinos family has been praying the rosary for months.

They’ve always been devout Catholics, but since last fall, the large, tightknit family has been rocked by tragedy after tragedy, so they have leaned on prayer like never before.

“It’s been like a whole storm on us,” said Laura Valdovinos, 18.

The deaths – all attributed to COVID-19 – began in Mexico. In October, Laura’s aunt died, then two of her great uncles two months later.

In January, Laura lost her grandfather to the virus that she calls a monster, and finally, her father, Enrique, founder of a beloved restaurant in Hyannis called Mi Pueblo.

“It’s a tradition that for someone who passes away, we pray the rosary for nine days,” Laura said as she sat next to her uncle Osvaldo at a booth in Mi Pueblo.

“We call it the Novenario,” Osvaldo said.

“It felt like one rosary prayer would end, and then the next one would start,” Laura said. “It was one after another.”

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‘We were all together’

Since the day in 2013 that Enrique saw the future home of the restaurant go up for lease while making deliveries for Guaranteed Fresh, Laura saw her father – and her mother, Eulalia – pour everything into Mi Pueblo, a name that means “my town” in Spanish.

Before the virus hit, both of Laura’s parents usually left home at 5 in the morning and returned around 11 at night. When the pandemic began, the family was forced to close Mi Pueblo.

Laura had helped out at the restaurant since she was 12 years old, so she spent a lot of time with her parents, but always at Mi Pueblo.

“I feel like those days of quarantine were the best, because we were all together at home, and we were never together at home,” she said. “It felt so nice to be together. We’re not used to that.”

Mi Pueblo was Enrique’s dream, his family said, but it was a dream he had for them, for their happiness and security. When he first opened the restaurant and hired his brothers, Enrique paid them “too much,” Osvaldo said, sacrificing profit.

Enrique and the Valdovinos built Mi Pueblo into a restaurant with a reputation for having the best Mexican food on Cape Cod. The family hails from the southern Mexican state of Michoacán, and the food served at their restaurant is the same food they serve at home.

“We wanted people to feel at home when they ate here, as if they were eating in Mexico at grandma's house,” Laura said.

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‘We started working right away’

In March, amid the joy of family breakfasts and movie nights, Enrique was anxious, Laura said. The life-sustaining business he’d built, his family’s foundation, was shaking under the pressure of a pandemic that had shut down the world.

Enrique asked his daughter to help him research government relief, and the two sat at the computer together, deciphering the forms.

“He was the first of his siblings to fully learn English, and he got his citizenship first and helped everybody, all his brothers,” Laura said. “He was super intelligent, but some words, he was like, ‘What does this mean?’ I wouldn’t even understand it, so I would have to research what it meant.”

Enrique pushed off the application process and never sought any relief, Laura said. He thought the family could weather through on their own.

“Once we got the OK to be able to open back up for just to-go, we started working right away,” Laura said.

On opening for takeout, Osvaldo attracted customers on Facebook, and Duffy Health Center offered to pay Mi Pueblo to make burritos for Hyannis’ unhoused people, a lifeline for the Valdovinos that also helped the town’s neediest.

“One of them wanted me to bring my dad out, so they could thank him,” Laura said. “There were people like that who made us feel like we were helping.”

The business was surviving. In the fall, Mi Pueblo opened to indoor dining.

Mi Pueblo was a dream Enrique Valdovinos had for his family.
Mi Pueblo was a dream Enrique Valdovinos had for his family.

The exposure

The family suspects that someone who had been exposed to the coronavirus ate at the restaurant in late December, just before Christmas.

The consequence of that meal, if it was the source, was probably compounded by the delay in the family’s notification of their exposure.

Enrique, always at work, got to see his parents only on Sundays, the one day of the week that he took at least a few hours off. The family gathered for a home-cooked meal.

On Tuesday, Dec. 22, Enrique learned of the exposure to COVID-19 while working at Mi Pueblo. He closed the restaurant and went home. The next day, the entire family was tested. About 15 family members, ranging from cousins to aunts and uncles to grandparents, were infected.

Laura showed symptoms first, on Christmas Eve. She remembered lying on the couch with her father as the family watched a movie and being hit by a wave of powerful fatigue.

“My dad told me to go upstairs and get some rest,” Laura remembered, breaking down into sobs as Osvaldo reached over to comfort her. “He came in my room. I told him, ‘Please get out,’ because I didn’t want him to get sick. He said, ‘I don’t care, I just want you to be OK.’ Then he just tucked me in and gave me medicine.”

Enrique spent the next two days calling his family and checking the temperatures of his children, whom he’d quarantined in separate rooms.

“Instead of really focusing on himself and making sure he was OK, he would make sure everyone else was OK,” Laura said. “Every day, he was more worried. He was so scared of COVID. From the beginning, all he would do is watch YouTube, and he would send me videos of different respiration exercises.”

Enrique started to show symptoms the day after Christmas. He had back pain, then shivers and fever. But still, his mind was on his family.

When Laura had a particularly acute coughing attack one night as the family FaceTimed each other from separate rooms, Enrique asked his brother to bring them a pulse oximeter to measure blood oxygen levels. When the family took their readings, it was Enrique whose levels were below normal.

'The last time I saw him'

On Jan. 1, Laura called her parents to ask if she could order food. She found out they were preparing to call an ambulance to take Enrique to the hospital.

“I started crying because I just didn't want to see him go like that,” she said. “My dad said, ‘OK, OK, calm down, and you can drive me.’”

It took a little less than 10 minutes for Laura to drive her father to Cape Cod Hospital from their Hyannis home.

“He went to the hospital frustrated,” Laura said, and the two couldn’t talk much because he broke out into coughing fits every time he tried to speak. “He was mad that it got to that point.”

The two didn’t even say goodbye when they arrived at the emergency room. They expected they would be together again soon.

“That was the last time I saw him in person,” Laura said.

The family didn’t hear from Enrique directly for two days. When he finally texted Laura, whom he called Lupita, he asked her to show him the family’s gas and electric bills. Soon, Enrique asked Osvaldo to help reopen Mi Pueblo for takeout only after the family finished quarantining.

“We couldn't be closed this whole time; we needed to make money because this is where the money comes from,” Laura said.

Enrique spent almost a month in the hospital. The family FaceTimed him as often as they could. They tuned into virtual church services together on Sundays.

Often, Enrique was lying on his stomach, a treatment for coronavirus patients intended to help them breathe, holding the phone up in front of him with one hand.

The family didn’t tell Enrique that his father and brother had been admitted to the same hospital because of the virus. They didn’t want to worry him, to make him sicker.

Enrique missed his family deeply, and he told them so. It was too difficult for him to see the faces of his two young sons – he had to look away to keep from crying – so they mostly stopped joining the video calls.

He did text the boys. His son Alex asked if he remembered the name of a Beatles song they both liked. Soon, a text arrived from Enrique with the link to the song, “Anna (Go To Him).” It was the final text he sent to his son.

On Jan. 17, Enrique’s brother Martín stopped by his room on his way out of the hospital. "I beat the virus, you can, too," Martín told his brother.

That night, Enrique’s father, Ramon, died at the hospital, though Enrique never knew it.

A college acceptance and a goal fulfilled

Enrique’s health declined quickly. Before he was intubated Jan. 20, Enrique told Laura, a senior at Cape Cod Regional Technical School, to study for her certified nursing assistant exam.

“When my dad was able to talk, I had told him, ‘I don't want to go to school, I want to stay here with Mom just in case,’” she said. “He was like, ‘No. Go. This is more important.’ I really didn't want to go, but I did because of him.”

With the help of hospital staff, the family continued to FaceTime Enrique, though he couldn’t speak.

“I was able to tell him that I got accepted into UMass Boston,” she said. “He was unconscious, so he could hear me, but he couldn't respond.”

Though he couldn’t express it, the news of his daughter’s acceptance to college was something Enrique had worked toward since arriving in the USA in the mid-1990s.

“He came here with nothing and gave my brothers and I everything,” she said. “He was a very hard worker, and he taught me to be a very hard worker and that everything takes time, to just keep at it. If you're not seeing any progress, you're going to see it, just keep going. Don't give up.”

Dreaded news

On Jan. 29 at 6:55 a.m., the family received a call from one of Enrique’s doctors. There was a translator on the line, which Laura knew meant staff needed to communicate with her mother.

“Whenever they would give us bad news, they would tell my mom with the translator,” Laura said. “The first voice was the doctor's, because they talk first. She said, ‘I have some sad news.’ That's when I knew.”

At 6:09 that morning, Enrique had died. He was 45 years old.

Upon learning of his death, the people of Hyannis reached out to the family. Three times, flowers arrived at the restaurant. Osvaldo read messages of condolence sent to the restaurant’s Facebook page. Phone calls poured in.

With the help of a GoFundMe campaign that raised more than the family had hoped for, they held his funeral Feb. 12. Two days later, on Valentine’s Day, Laura turned 18. The family visited Enrique’s grave to sing "Happy Birthday."

Enrique, whom Laura will remember as the family jokester, the man who exuded a contagious joy and was always by her side, will live on through his family and the restaurant they built together.

Osvaldo is taking the helm, and he plans to honor his brother by launching a second, larger restaurant that Enrique had hoped to open.

“Just because he's gone, we're not going to stop, because he doesn't give up,” Laura said. “We want to fulfill his dreams and do everything that he wanted to do. Every single thing.”

While she helps out with the restaurant, Laura also will fulfill another dream of her father’s: going to college.

“I want to be a nurse,” she said.

The experience of watching the coronavirus ravage her family has strengthened her commitment to the career.

“I feel like I want to help more,” she said. “I wish I was the nurse for my dad. For people who are in (the hospital) during COVID, family can't go and visit. The nurses are the only people who are there comforting, and if someone's going through the same thing as my dad was, I want to be there to comfort them like family.”

Follow reporter Jeannette Hinkle on Twitter: @Jenny_Hinkle

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This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Cape Cod family, hard hit by COVID-19 deaths, honors those they lost