MEXICO CITY — This is the story of a much-longed-for hug.
Because of the pandemic, I hadn’t been able to travel to Mexico since March of last year, which meant that I hadn’t seen my mother in over a year. I would never have forgiven myself had I unwittingly exposed her to the coronavirus. So, I waited until she received both shots of the Covid-19 vaccine (and I had as well) — and then I waited another two weeks for her to develop full protection from the virus — and then I jumped on the first flight out of Miami.
Those who love my mother call her by the nickname “Yuyú.” But my siblings and I call her “la Jechu,” or “the Boss” — a reference to a character from the old Mexican TV series “Los Polivoces” — because that’s what she is at home. She’s 87, not even five feet tall and, “except for being old,” she’s “doing all right,” she says. And she really is. Her sense of humor remains as good as ever, and although she struggles with her memory sometimes — don’t ask her what she had for breakfast yesterday — she can still easily recall the day her mother passed away when she was only 15 years old, or tell you about that special day when her father invited her to an important business meeting, without missing the slightest emotional detail. The picture of those days remains clear in her mind.
My mother was the first rebel I ever met. One day she told my father that she would never again make him hot chocolate, and just like that, with those simple words and her sheer determination, she took her first steps toward freedom. She enrolled in a few courses at the university I attended, we traveled together to China and India, and I had my first philosophical conversation on the meaning of happiness with her. “Happiness is never permanent, Jorgito,” she told me, leaning against the kitchen door, her eyes lost in a brief moment of pain.
When I was a boy, I never told her: “Mom, when I grow up, I want to be an immigrant.” I wanted to be a soccer player or a rock star. None of us become immigrants because we want to; we become immigrants because we have no other choice. My mother understood the situation perfectly well when I told her that I had to leave Mexico.
I’ve been in the United States nearly four decades, and I’ve always made sure to return home to visit my mother several times each year. It’s a ritual for me: With every visit, I find a little of the Mexico I’ve lost, and I get back some of the years I’ve missed with my family and friends. Those who have never left find it hard to understand the void and longing felt by those who have. We live in constant worry that if loved ones fall ill, get hurt in an accident or catch Covid-19, that we won’t be able to return home in time to see them before their passing.
Our dual identities present us with further challenges. In Mexico some people tell me that I’m a traitor because I left and that I’m no longer a real Mexican. While in the United States some people haven’t quite accepted the fact that I live here and keep telling me to go back to the country where I came from.
The necessary — and sometimes painful — ritual of visiting my mother was torn apart by the pandemic. Mexico is ranked fourth in total Covid deaths, behind only India, Brazil and the United States. Over 217,000 people have died, according to official tallies. But the real number is likely far higher. A recent government report noted that excess deaths linked to the coronavirus totaled nearly 330,000 as of March 15. Many more have died since then.
“We are giving a lesson to the world with our behavior,” Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said last April. “Don’t worry, we are doing things in a professional way, very responsibly.”
Mexicans have surely taught the world a lesson — one on how not to manage a pandemic. The president has long been wary of wearing face masks and refuses to make their use mandatory. Early in the pandemic, he advised Mexicans not to be afraid of hugging each other and he touted the benefits of using religious charms as a “protective shield” against the coronavirus.
The vaccine rollout in Mexico has been terribly slow. Only 12.7 million people out of a population of 126 million have received at least one dose. I am, therefore, incredibly grateful that my mother was among those lucky enough to get fully vaccinated.
La Jechu received both of her Pfizer shots at a well-run vaccination center set up near her apartment in Mexico City. By mere chance, I got my Moderna jabs in Miami almost at the same time. Soon we’d be able to meet in person. The video calls that had kept us emotionally afloat for so long would at last be a thing of the past.
An old university friend who was unable to hug his mom before she died from Covid-19 emailed me with a simple piece of advice: Just hug her. A lot.
That was precisely my plan.
I took a Covid test in Miami one day before my scheduled flight and an antigen test a few hours before visiting her, after I arrived in Mexico. Both tests were negative. After landing, I went to an empty restaurant to eat tacos al pastor (spit-grilled pork tacos) and drink agua de jamaica (hibiscus water) — speaking of important rituals! — and then I rushed back to my hotel to take a shower. I wanted to be as spanking clean as I was when I was a small boy. I even scrubbed under my nails.
On my way to my mother’s place, I felt the nerves creeping up on me, almost as if I was heading out on a first date. With two face masks on, one of them an N95, I took the elevator up to her apartment. Then I rang the doorbell. A soft figure, even shorter than I had pictured, opened the door. I saw her eyes open wide. We stared at each other, completely frozen. Before I touched her, I asked if she could put on a mask. She took a few steps back, grabbed a cute face mask with a Mexican pattern — green, white and red — and laboriously put it on.
Then, at last, I hugged her. For a long time. Neither of us wanted to let go. I knew I had gotten home in time. I felt her body nearly trembling. She wrapped her arms around my neck and said behind my ear: “Ay, mi niño.” Then I broke into tears.