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A Priest, An Editor And A Mariachi Player Talk Life In The Rio Grande Amid COVID-19

Hector Guerra, right and Juan Carlos Sanchez, from El Mariachi Continental, make their way to a funeral service in Donna, Texas on Aug. 21.
Hector Guerra, right and Juan Carlos Sanchez, from El Mariachi Continental, make their way to a funeral service in Donna, Texas on Aug. 21.

A priest, a newspaper editor and a mariachi musician — they've all had their work and lives upended in a corner of the country that has been devastated by the coronavirus.

More than 2,000 people in the Rio Grande Valley in the southern tip of Texas have perished in the pandemic.

The population of 1.4 million is beset with poverty and preexisting conditions like diabetes, hypertension and obesity. The rate of infection in the four counties that make up the RGV is nearly twice what it is in the rest of Texas. The specter of death or illness from COVID-19 has become a grim fixture of everyday life in the Valley.

Father Roy Snipes and mass attendees make their way to the Rio Grande where they will be releasing memorial wreaths with the names of the asylum-seekers that died trying to reach the U.S. in Mission, Texas.
Verónica G. Cardenas / for NPR
Father Roy Snipes and mass attendees make their way to the Rio Grande where they will be releasing memorial wreaths with the names of the asylum-seekers that died trying to reach the U.S. in Mission, Texas.

The eight members of El Mariachi Continental — dressed in traditional black charro suits — recently brought their instruments to Valley Memorial Gardens in McAllen, Texas, to perform the funeral song, Las Golondrinas.Their voices echo off the marble burial crypts:

The swallow that departs,

she may get lost in the wind,

looking for shelter but not finding it.

"You know, there's no place to play right now except the cemeteries," says Hector Guerra, the 63-year-old leader. "We're playing a lot of funerals. We're standing six feet away from each other. We're using our face masks. It's just gotten very, very sad and very serious."

Miguel Lupercio violinist in El Mariachi Continental, waits for the funeral attendees to arrive at the cemetery where he will be playing in Donna, Texas.
Veronica G. Cardenas / for NPR
Miguel Lupercio violinist in El Mariachi Continental, waits for the funeral attendees to arrive at the cemetery where he will be playing in Donna, Texas.

El Mariachi Continental plays during a funeral service at a cemetery in Donna.
Veronica G. Cardenas / for NPR
El Mariachi Continental plays during a funeral service at a cemetery in Donna.

Guerra has been playing mariachi music in the Valley for four decades.

"We played the funeral of a 40-year-old lady last week," he says. "Her husband came up to me and told me, 'Thank you so much. Do you remember that you played at our wedding 20 years ago?' and I was freaking out. I was so sorry."

Guerra says all their regular work — weddings, anniversaries and q uinceañeras — has been cancelled or postponed.

"We don't know what's going to happen. And it's unfortunate because we're seeing a lot of death," he says. "I mean, I'm just flabbergasted with a small-town newspaper as we have here in McAllen with 70 to 80 death notices a day."

The editor who oversees those obituaries is Veronica Diaz, design chief for AIM Media Texas, which owns the McAllen Monitor, the Valley Morning Star and the Brownsville Herald.

"A year ago, I'd 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 100 death notices in one day. That's a huge increase," says Diaz, 46, looking up from the computer screen on her dining room table, where she works remotely. Her terriers, Maggie and Rocky, keep her company.

The surge in deaths has meant more work for a page designer.

"I spend a lot of time fixing errors, making sure their names are spelled right. There's always the question — is this the right photo? Is it supposed to be color or black and white? Am I supposed to crop it? I mean, it's given us a huge increase in stress dealing with all these obituaries."

Veronica Diaz, layout editor at the Valley Morning Star, poses for a photo at her home in Harlingen, Texas.
Veronica G. Cardenas / for NPR
Veronica Diaz, layout editor at the Valley Morning Star, poses for a photo at her home in Harlingen, Texas.

In order not to crowd out the news, her newspapers have added extra pages to accommodate all of the funeral notices.

One of the Catholic priests who conducts the funerals for COVID-19 victims in the Rio Grande Valley is Father Roy Snipes. The 75-year-old Oblate priest--known in the borderlands as "the cowboy priest"--is pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Mission, Texas. He's seldom seen without his sweat-stained cowboy hat shambling to mass with a small pack of scruffy dogs in tow.

These days, Snipes is presiding over as many as four burials in a day.

"It's incredible. It's a nightmare. I still can't hardly believe it," he says, sitting on a bench beside the white-washed, 155-year-old chapel, La Lomita, for which the city of Mission gets its name. "I know that I'm not going to run and hide," he continues, "and I know that my job is not just to bury the dead but to console those who are heartbroken."

"The spirit works in the heartbreak," he adds, "but it sure hurts like hell."

The highly contagious virus has altered burial rites. Instead of mourners crowding into a church or funeral home, they stand outside while the hearse brings the body in front of the church where Father Roy blesses it with incense and holy water. Then he accompanies the reduced funeral cortege to the gravesite.

Father Roy Snipes pictured at La Lomita Chapel in Mission, Texas, Friday, June 28 honoring the lives of migrants who died trying to go north. These days he's officiating funerals for COVID-19 victims.
Veronica G. Cardenas / for NPR
Father Roy Snipes pictured at La Lomita Chapel in Mission, Texas, Friday, June 28 honoring the lives of migrants who died trying to go north. These days he's officiating funerals for COVID-19 victims.

"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," he says. "But now this is like a tsunami."

"I'll end up the day thinking, 'Dadgum, maybe I've got the virus! I feel sick and tired.' And then I'll maybe take a shot of Old Crow and get to bed and I wake up rarin' to go in the morning, thanks be to God."

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