‘The Worst Has Passed’: Recovered From COVID, a Family Weathers Challenges Shared by Many Latino Immigrants

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In a scene from the August 2020 FRONTLINE documentary "Love, Life & the Virus," Luciana Lira (right) reunites baby Neysel with his mother, Zully, after caring for him while Zully battled COVID.

In a scene from the August 2020 FRONTLINE documentary "Love, Life & the Virus," Luciana Lira (right) reunites baby Neysel with his mother, Zully, after caring for him while Zully battled COVID.

March 15, 2021

At the end of December, Zully, a 31-year-old mother of two, found herself confronting the unimaginable: yet another COVID-19 nightmare.

Her then-8-month-old baby, Neysel, was running an intermittently high fever. Even though it was late at night, Zully texted Luciana Lira, the same woman who had taken care of Neysel for six weeks after he was born prematurely in April 2020. At that time, Zully was in the ICU, fighting for her life. Due to severe COVID-19 symptoms, she had given birth via C-section while in a medically induced coma. Her husband, Marvin, was also infected and couldn’t take care of the baby.

Lira, who teaches Zully’s older son, Junior, now 8, stepped in to care for Neysel, despite barely knowing the family before the pandemic. Their story was the subject of the August 2020 FRONTLINE documentary Love, Life & the Virus, from filmmaker Oscar Guerra.

Since last spring, the connection between the two women has only deepened. Zully, who emigrated to Stamford, Connecticut, from Guatemala, calls Lira her baby’s “mamita brasileira,” mixing Spanish and Portuguese words for “Brazilian little mother.” Lira, originally from Rio de Janeiro, will be the baby’s godmother. The two speak almost every day, and Lira translates most of Neysel’s telehealth appointments.

So on December 29, when a doctor ordered a COVID-19 test for Neysel, the women anxiously awaited the result, texting back and forth for two days and nights. When the test came back negative, they could finally end the year — in which eight members of Zully’s family in the U.S. and Guatemala had been diagnosed with COVID-19 — with a sigh of relief. The entire family was finally recovered and healthy.

“We prayed so much for it not to be true, and thank God, the baby didn’t have anything,” Zully said.  

Lira said she’s thankful “the worst has passed.”

But Zully’s family is the exception. According to analysis from April 2020 to Feb. 2, 2021, by APM Research Lab, Latinos in the U.S. are more than twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as white and Asian Americans.

Zully’s family benefited from an outpouring of support. In addition to Lira’s help, they received assistance from their community: baby shower gifts; Guatemalan comfort food delivered to Marvin and Junior, as well as meals for Lira, so she didn’t have to cook while caring for Neysel; even Go Fund Me donations.

In other ways, the family represents an all-too-common scenario for working-class Latino immigrants: struggling to stay afloat while unable to work from home during COVID. Marvin’s hours at a local restaurant decreased dramatically in late March 2020. Since June, when the food industry began a slow recovery, he has worked significantly fewer hours than usual, for smaller paychecks.

A poll released last September by NPR/Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation revealed that at least half of Latino households in four of the largest U.S. cities had serious financial problems. At the same time, fewer than 5 in 100 Latinos have been vaccinated, according to APM Research Lab.

Children of color are also experiencing a disproportionate learning gap during the pandemic. The consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that, on a fall 2020 test taken by children ages 5 to 10 in 25 states, students of color scored 41% lower in math and 23% lower in reading than their historical averages from previous years, while white students scored 33% lower in math and 13% lower in reading.

Zullly’s older son, Junior, is one of approximately 60 ESL students Lira teaches remotely and in person. He’s struggling, and Zully is concerned he’ll fall behind. She said she uses a translation app to help him with his homework: “I want my children to study.”

“We are trying to help them as much as we can,” Lira said. “I’d like to see them go back to school full-time, five times a week. … (For) most of my students, their parents completed only up to second or third grade themselves, so that’s hard enough for them to be able to help their kids.”

In Stamford, 34.4% of the population is foreign-born, compared to 13.7%, of the total U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 5-year American Community Survey released in 2019.

To give Junior a boost, Lira got permission from the parents of kids in his class to hold a special celebration one morning in January. Behind the glass protections atop their distanced desks, the mask-clad children sang happy birthday to Junior and ate cupcakes. “I was very emotional. For me, it was a celebration of the entire year that we went through,” Lira said.

Lira said she can’t wait to be vaccinated so that she can visit the family and hug and babysit Neysel. “I have another family now,” she said. Her first shot was scheduled for March 14. Zully and Marvin are also waiting to be vaccinated; Connecticut is distributing vaccines by age, with education and childcare workers prioritized. 

Meanwhile, Zully has started taking English classes at Building One Community, a local nonprofit that has been advising the family on immigration matters, tax preparation and more. “To me, it’s very difficult to speak in English,” she told FRONTLINE. “Sometimes, at the store, they ignore people who can’t speak English. Sometimes I need to buy something or do something by myself, and I have to find someone who speaks Spanish. This motivated me to learn, at least, the most-used words.”

She already knew how to say, “thank you,” but she has learned how to say, “You’re welcome.” Zully said she received so many donations last year, she has been able to pass along baby clothes, diapers and formula to other immigrant mothers.

“I thank God, before anything, and the people who helped me, the people who cared so much about my son, my husband and me,” Zully said.

With the help of Catalina Horak, Building One Community’s former director, Zully has nominated Lira for an educator of the year award. Recipients will be announced March 25. “This friendship will last forever. She deserves this award and more,” Zully said of Lira.

“I thank Luciana so much, because she took care of Neysel,” Zully said. “Who would take care of a baby they don’t even know much about?”

Watch the full documentary Love, Life & the Virus below, in English and en español. Find hundreds more documentaries in FRONTLINE’s online collection of streaming films, on YouTube and in the PBS Video App.


In English

En español


Paula Moura

Paula Moura, Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Newmark Journalism School Fellowship, FRONTLINE

Twitter:

@PaulaMoura_san

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