MEXICO CITY — Because of the pandemic, I hadn’t been able to travel to Mexico since last March. My mother lives there. I hadn’t seen her for more than a year.
The fear of unwittingly exposing her to the virus kept me away. I waited until both of us had received two shots of the Covid-19 vaccine. And I waited another two weeks for her to develop full immunity. And then I jumped on the first flight out of Miami.
Those who love my mother call her by her 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 she is the boss at home. She is 87, not even five feet tall, and “except for being old,” she’s “doing all right,” she says.
Her sense of humor remains as good as ever. Although she might forget what she had for breakfast yesterday, she can still recall the day her mother passed away when she was 15 years old, or the special day when her father invited her to an important business meeting, without missing the slightest emotional detail. My mother was the first rebel I ever met. One day she told my father that she would never again make him hot chocolate. With those simple words, with 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. 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 wanted to be a soccer player or a rock star. I never said, “Mom, when I grow up, I want to be an immigrant.” We become immigrants because we have no other choice. I left Mexico City after I was censored for my political reporting at the television station where I worked. In the early 1980s, most media organizations faced censorship from the government, and I didn’t want to be a censored journalist. So I quit, sold my car and left to study in Los Angeles. My mother understood when I told her that I had to leave Mexico.
I’ve been in the United States nearly four decades, and I’ve always returned 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, we won’t be able to return home in time to see them before their passing.
Our dual identities present us with more 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 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 218,000 people have died, according to official tallies. But the real number is most 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,” President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico said last April. Mexicans have surely taught the world a lesson — 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 one another and 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 incredibly grateful that my mother was 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 sheer 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 of Covid-19 emailed me with a simple piece of advice: Just hug her. A lot.
That was precisely my plan.
I took a coronavirus test in Miami one day before my scheduled flight and an antigen test on arriving in Mexico City, a few hours before visiting her. Both tests were negative. 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 for 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.