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How The COVID-19 Pandemic Has Disrupted Life In The Rio Grande Valley


A mariachi musician, a newspaper editor and a priest all have seen their jobs and lives upended by the coronavirus in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. It's one of the hardest-hit regions in the country with more than 2,000 dead. And the specter of death looms large. We start our story in a cemetery in McAllen, Texas.

HECTOR GUERRA: My name is Hector Guerra. I am one of the parts of the Mariachi Continental here in McAllen, Texas. And, you know, there's no place to play right now except the cemeteries.


GUERRA: We're playing a lot of funerals. We're staying 6 feet away from each other. We're using our face masks. It's just gotten very, very sad and very serious.



GUERRA: Of course, all the event centers closed down. All the celebrations that are cultural - usually does quinceaneras, bodas, aniversarios - they've been canceled or have been postponed or eliminated to whenever because we don't know what's going to happen. And it's unfortunate because we're seeing a lot of death. And, I mean, I'm just flabbergasted - with a small-town newspaper as we have here in McAllen, Texas, 70 to 80 death notices a day.

VERONICA DIAZ: My name is Veronica Diaz, and I oversee a group of graphic designers that design the newspapers for Valley Morning Star, The Monitor and The Brownsville Herald. A year ago, I would say we would average maybe seven to 10 death notices daily. Now after COVID, we're looking at an average of 25 to 30 death notices. And last week, we had a hundred death notices - in one day, yes.

For me, it's surreal. You know, I spent a lot of time fixing errors, making sure the names are spelled right. I mean, all that adds a lot of stress to my work daily. We have 11 obituaries and 33 death notices for tomorrow. Eloy Alvarez (ph) is one obit. Cruz Gonzalez Martinez (ph), Belinda Benitez Lara (ph)...

ROY SNIPES: It's incredible. It's a nightmare. It's - I still can't hardly believe it. I know that I'm not going to run and hide, but - and I know that my job is not just to bury the dead but to console those who are heartbroken.

My name is Father Roy Snipes. I'm an oblate of Mary Immaculate and a pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish. La Lomita, where we are right now, is our mother or grandmother church, so this is our little Mission church.

What we're doing with the coronavirus - instead of crowding together in the church or the funeral home, we'll just bring the body to the front of the church in the hearse, ring the funeral bell and play a good song - like, maybe, like, "Blue Shadows" or some good, soothing song for broken hearts. And then I'll bless the body in a hearse with the incense and with the holy water and then accompany them to the grave.

This is what I signed up for, and this is what I've always done - 40 years a priest. And I've always prayed to do a good job and not to be robotic or perfunctory, you know? But now this is like a tsunami. I'll end up the day thinking, daggum (ph), maybe I've got the virus. I feel sick and tired. And then I'll maybe take a shot of Old Crow and hit the bed. And then I'll wake up raring to go in the morning, thanks be to God.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Hector Guerra, Veronica Diaz and Father Roy Snipes. They spoke with NPR's John Burnett. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.