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The smell of searing ground beef wafted through the air in the parking lot of a Chevron gas station on the Northwest Side of San Antonio.
Ramiro and Jeanette Espinoza had set up a food stand the morning of Aug. 15 offering passersby crispy tacos, rice, beans, and a drink for $8. Jeanette, 47, enlisted her 71-year-old mother to help cook hundreds of meals, and Ramiro, 38, called in a fleet of nieces and nephews to help man the cash box and sell food tickets. A sign on a wooden pole facing Bandera Road read “Benefit Plate Sale.”
Tragedy had forced the Espinozas into their new business venture. Weeks earlier, Ramiro’s father, Ramiro Espinoza Sr., died from complications of the coronavirus at the age of 55.
The elder Espinoza hadn’t given his burial much thought, said Ramiro. In life and before his death, he requested that his son leave his body to the county so he wouldn’t have to shoulder the heavy funeral costs.
But that wasn’t going to happen, said Ramiro. He was determined to bury his father with dignity. Ramiro said his father would’ve done anything for his family, so they were doing everything they could for him.
For two consecutive weekends, the Espinozas sold plates of chicken sausages, crispy tacos, and hot dogs in parking lots across San Antonio to raise the over $8,000 needed for the funeral.
He’d done it twice before. Once for his sister, Estella Espinoza, who died suddenly after developing an infection in her leg in 2018, and for his uncle, Nativida Bosquev, who Ramiro said was hit by a car in 2017. In both cases, the sudden death of the family member left the Espinozas with little recourse. Without thousands of dollars at their disposal, they saw no other option but to raise funds the best way they knew how.
Then in 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic swept the country, Ramiro, an independent landscaper, lost the majority of his work. Though he’s gotten some of his clients back, his business isn’t up and running the way it was before COVID-19. His wife, Jeanette, works as a cashier at the gas station, where she makes $12 an hour. The couple’s income wasn’t enough to cover the costs of Ramiro Sr.’s funeral.
A selfless patriarch
Ramiro Sr., a roofer from the South Side, was known for being a jokester and a selfless person, always searching for ways to help those in need, even if it required spending his last dollar, his son said. Jeanette described Ramiro Sr. as someone who loved his family – and bean and cheese burritos. He was a man who would’ve given his only jacket to a stranger on a cold night. He actually did once, she joked, with a jacket she bought him.
At first, Ramiro Sr., who continued his roofing work during the pandemic, showed no signs of having contracted the virus. In July, he was admitted to Methodist Hospital Metropolitan for chronic liver damage. Doctors there tested him for COVID-19. That test came back negative, Ramiro said.
Ramiro Sr. stayed at Methodist for a week before doctors recommended Ramiro transfer him to a nursing home for end of life treatment. Ramiro agreed, settling on Oak Park Nursing and Rehabilitation Center after confirming that none of the patients or members of staff there had tested positive for the virus.
Ramiro Sr. had been at Oak Park for four days when he was rushed to St. Luke’s Baptist Hospital once his condition declined. Doctors there tested him for the virus. This time, the test came back positive, Ramiro Jr. said. He believes the virus accelerated his father’s liver problems.
On Aug. 3, after a week in the hospital, Ramiro watched his father die via FaceTime.
Ramiro Sr.’s death left his family with little time to grieve. Ramiro Jr. said officials at St. Luke’s gave him three hours to collect his father’s body.
In a statement, Patti Tanner, a representative of St. Luke’s Hospital said, “Our hospital morgue is only designed to provide temporary storage until arrangements can be made for transport to the funeral home of the family’s choice.” She added, “Our hearts are with the family during this difficult time.”
Ramiro Jr. went to pick up his father and moved his body to Hillcrest Funeral Home ahead of the ceremony.
The cost of death
“People just aren’t prepared,” Hillcrest owner Joanne Bernal said about the uptick of individuals dying from the virus. “COVID has opened their eyes.”
Bernal said families are struggling to come up with the money to bury their loved ones. In some cases, as a direct result of the virus, they are facing costs to bury multiple relatives at once, she said. “People are borrowing money from their credit cards.”
Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4), whose district is made up largely of Latino households, has spoken about the high rates of coronavirus cases and deaths in her district. She herself lost six family members over the span of six weeks.
San Antonio’s 55 licensed funeral providers have been handling more services as the number of deaths from COVID-19 have shot up this month.
According to a 2013 study conducted by LIMRA, Hispanics have the lowest rate of life insurance compared to whites and African Americans, with many prioritizing paying for medical expenses, credit card debt, and a child’s schooling before committing to a policy.
Local insurance agent Bradlee LaBrutta said the statistics aligned with his own experience and that he’s seen a decline in people buying life insurance compared to this time last year. “If anything, they’re holding on to their dollars,” he said.
And with 45 percent of Latinos having less than $1,000 in savings, the group is particularly vulnerable to sudden financial strains.
A proper farewell
By the end of the Saturday plate sale, the Espinozas had pulled together $6,900, but not enough for the ceremony. Still needing $1,400, Ramiro pulled $1,000 from savings. His grandmother took out a loan to cover the final $400.
On Aug. 20, roughly a dozen family members attended Ramiro Sr.’s funeral at Hillcrest, sitting spread out in every other row. Ramiro Sr.’s body lay in an open gray casket at the center of the chapel between two burning red candles and golden angel statues.
When it came time to speak, Ramiro gathered the strength to thank those in attendance, and watching on YouTube, who contributed toward the ceremony.
Ramiro’s 25-year-old stepson, Daniel Gonzales, took to the pulpit after him. He said Ramiro Sr. treated him like his own son. “I know he’s resting in paradise,” he said. “And I’m jealous, because I wish I could be there with him.”
A mariachi band played as the casket was lowered at Wildflower Memorial Park. Despite the struggle, Ramiro, honored his father the way he wanted to, with a proper burial near his daughter. “I got him as close as I could to my sister,” he said.