This essay was first published in our semi-weekly newsletter, Climate in the Time of Coronavirus, which you can subscribe to here.
It’s not easy to look out for each other these days, or so I thought as I rushed to the store to buy a roasted chicken for my mom last weekend. It was a seemingly innocent task that in the time of coronavirus had suddenly turned macabre. Would I inadvertently bring the virus straight to her doorstep? I was determined not to, since she falls into the age range most vulnerable to complications from COVID-19. So I stepped up my typical sanitizing protocol as I shopped for groceries, using a sanitizing wipe on everything my hands touched, from the grocery cart handlebars to my steering wheel, and squeezing hand sanitizer onto my hands after paying.
It was my sister’s birthday — her “coronavirus birthday,” as she took to describing it while the news of the outbreak, market crash, and massive nationwide shutdowns took over our lives. How do you celebrate in a time like this? We’d debated that question, eventually rejecting all of our usual dining haunts — it’s not easy to practice social distancing in a restaurant — and settling on what we had done growing up: cooking sopes, a favorite dish of my dad’s when he was alive, at our mom’s house.
If you’ve ever made sopes by hand, you know it’s a true labor of love . Mixing the corn masa (dough), shaping the masa disks on the tortilla press, cooking them first on the comal and then frying them in oil — it’s a family affair that requires all hands on deck. In our case my dad always headed that assembly line. Tortillas were his business in Mexico City, where my parents were born, so he knew how to measure exactly the amount of water the ready-made masa harina needed to achieve the perfect masa texture — not sticky and never cracked dry — for our Sunday sopes, which we’d top with mashed beans, cabbage, salsa, sour cream, and different types of meat.
At my mom’s house, I wasn’t worried about cleanliness. Anyone who enters my mom’s kitchen knows the drill: Wash your hands! And trust me, she watches to make sure it’s done properly. What kept me up later that night was whether any of us — my sisters, my nieces, or nephew — could already be carrying the virus. Would it have been safer just to stay away?
I consider myself lucky. I live just a 20-minute drive from my mom. I flew the coop long ago when I went to college, but I always knew I’d return to my hometown to be closer to my family. Food has always been how we show our love. When I’d come home from my college, my dad would always ask, “Mi’ja, what dish should we make this weekend?” Enchiladas Suizas, I’d declare! And so it was.
Now, when I’m out shopping and spot delicacies like flores de calabaza (squash blossoms) or chirimoyas, I scoop them up for my mom, who never forgot the poverty of her childhood, when some days all she had to eat were tortillas and beans. She loves simmering the squash blossoms in tomatoes, onions, and chiles, then wrapping it all in a tortilla. What she loves most, though, is feeding us, and we happily oblige.
So even though a part of me worried about celebrating last weekend, it also felt right. I walked in, washed my hands, and stepped right into the assembly line, wrapping each sope in a thin towel and pinching the edges on the hot disk to create a rim. It’s during these times of uncertainty that we lean on each other the most, and our cozy family meal was exactly that: a time to catch up, listen to the news, stress about COVID-19, and share tips on how to survive this global crisis.
That was before the governor of California ordered everyone in the state to stay home except for essential work or travel. The next few weeks will be isolating, but even as we maintain the recommended distance from friends, colleagues, and everyone else, there are ways to bridge that space. Last weekend, my neighbor who raises chickens left a dozen beautiful, fresh brown eggs at our door. Friends from across the country have sent texts checking in, sharing advice, and sending their love. On online forums, neighbors are offering to help those in need shop for groceries. We may not be able to break bread in public, but the loss of life to COVID-19 is a reminder that this isolation is a small price to pay to keep all of us safe.
We are faced with a deepening health crisis that scientists say may well be linked to environmental destruction. The question is: What will we do? In the short term, it’s heartening to see generosity extended from one stranger to another, and by those willing to help others in this time of need. But as we fight this pandemic, we should remember that the greater battle against global warming is still ahead, and that the same environmental degradation that may have led us to this outbreak is poised to lead to a more extreme public health crisis as climate change accelerates.
That same spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood can help us find solutions that address both of these calamities. You can call it “love in the time of coronavirus,” and indeed many are referencing Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece these days. But the themes of Love in the Time of Cholera resonate even more deeply than we realize. In the novel, Florentino Ariza waits patiently for decades to unite with Fermina Daza, and finally together, they essentially quarantine themselves aboard a steamboat forever sailing the waters of the Magdalena River.
But in his zeal, Florentino, president of the River Company of the Caribbean, fails to see the warning signs of environmental degradation along the Magdalena. The “father of waters” is no longer the great river of Florentino’s youth. It’s been ravaged by 50 years of “uncontrolled deforestation,” toppling ancient, colossal trees whose wood feeds the steamboats’ boilers. Without these giants, the shrieking parrots and screaming monkeys have vanished, as have the manatees with their siren songs from the river’s sandy banks.
The message from Garcia Marquez is not so subtle: Florentino receives the alarming reports of the Magdalena’s demise, but never acts, and by the time he realizes the truth, it’s too late. “Love becomes greater and nobler in calamity,” writes Garcia Marquez. Will we heed his words of wisdom for the sake of the generations that may never have the opportunity to sail down a river as magnificent as the Magdalena? As Florentino and Fermina discover in the winter of their lives, despite what everyone has told them, there is no barrier that love can’t overcome because “love was always love, anytime and anyplace, but it was more solid the closer it came to death.”