‘It was one after another’: Tight-knight Massachusetts family, ravaged by COVID, looks to honor those they lost

A portrait of Enrique Valdovinos on the counter of his Hyannis, Massachusetts, restaurant Mi Pueblo. He died of COVID-19.

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

They’ve always been devout Catholics but since last fall, the large, tight-knit 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 months later, two of her great uncles.

The eye of the storm moved north.

In January, Laura lost her grandfather to the virus that she calls a monster, and finally, her father, Enrique Valdovinos, founder of a beloved restaurant in Hyannis, Massachusetts, 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’

From Laura’s perspective, the pandemic began with a gift.

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 would usually leave home at 5 in the morning and return 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 says, 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.

Over time, 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 always pushed off the actual application process and in the end 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’s 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.

Entrance to Mi Pueblo Restaurant.

The exposure

The family thinks the virus crept into their lives when someone they later found out had been exposed to it ate at the restaurant one Friday in late December, just before Christmas.

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

Enrique, always at work, only got to see his parents on Sundays, the one day of the week that he took at least a few hours off. That Sunday, 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 eventually infected.

Laura began to show symptoms first, on Christmas Eve. She remembered laying 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, 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 then that 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, adding that the two couldn’t talk much because he would break 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 both 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 did finally text Laura, who he called Lupita, he asked her to show him the family’s gas and electric bills. Soon, Enrique would ask Osvaldo to help reopen Mi Pueblo for takeout only after they 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 would spend almost a month in the hospital. During that time, the family FaceTimed him as often as they could. They tuned into virtual church services together on Sundays.

Often, Enrique was laying 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 also 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. Once, 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 would be 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 began to decline quickly after that. Before he was intubated on Jan. 20, Enrique told Laura, a senior at Cape Cod Regional Technical School, to study for her upcoming 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 United States 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 also was a translator on the line, something that 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 that raised more than the family had hoped for, they held his funeral on Friday, Feb. 12. Two days, later, on Valentine’s Day, Laura turned 18. The family visited Enrique’s grave to sing Happy Birthday.

Enrique, who 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 one day 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 Valdovinos said. “We want to fulfill his dreams and do everything that he wanted to do. Every single thing.”

While she still will help 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 only 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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