Early one morning when Maria Urrabazo was 8, she climbed into a small boat with her mom and two younger brothers. Dawn would soon give way to a new day, and just across the Rio Grande River was the land of opportunity.
Though she was unable to complete the naturalization process to become a United States citizen before her death in June from COVID-19, at age 79, Urrabazo achieved the American dream all the same in the seven decades she called this country home.
“Mom lived the American dream and more because she was able to give it to her children and her children’s children,” her youngest son, Isaias Urrabazo, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Maria Urrabazo leaves behind seven biological children, two children she took in and raised as her own, 16 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
“We live this dream because of her,” Isaias Urrabazo added. “But the thing about mom’s life is that it was not easy. Mom was a fighter — she really was — up until the end.”
On Mother’s Day, three weeks after she first came down with symptoms, Maria Urrabazo was admitted to MountainView Hospital. By then, she’d gone to the emergency room three times.
Hardest-hit ethnic group
When it became evident she would need to be hospitalized, her children “all rushed over” to take her to the hospital, he said.
In all, the respiratory illness would spread to at least four other family members: Urrabazo’s daughter, Ruth; her daughter-in-law, Marisela; and her sons, Tony and Joel, both of whom were hospitalized but eventually released.
“I think COVID affects Hispanic families in such a big way because we are very close,” Isaias Urrabazo said. “The idea of family is very important in our culture. We all gather together, and we take care of our elders.”
In Nevada, Latino communities continue to be the hardest hit by the pandemic. As of Friday, state data shows, the ethnic group made up 35 percent of positive cases in the state. Health officials say the disproportionate infection rate is likely due to a lack of access to health care, households that tend to be multigenerational and jobs that often put individuals in contact with the public.
Ruth and Marisela have recovered from the virus, while Joel and Tony, who was in the hospital in serious condition for more than two months, continue to recover at the Las Vegas home they shared with their mother. On Friday, another family member was awaiting test results.
‘An awesome legacy’
The oldest of 12 children, Maria Urrabazo was born on May 28, 1941, in Múzquiz, a town in northeastern Mexico along a small stream of the Sabinas River. But Urrabazo’s story, according to her children, truly began on that dark morning in the late 1940s, when she crossed the U.S.-Mexico border into Texas.
A daughter of migrant field workers, she spent her childhood moving from one state to the next as her parents followed any work available to them. When she wasn’t in the field working with her parents, she was helping care for her siblings.
Maria Urrabazo would later tell her own children stories about those long, hot days in the fields. She was just a child herself, she’d say, but learned early on the value of hard work.
By 18, she had found work on a large ranch in McAllen, Texas, washing the undergarments of the ranch owners. It was there that she met Pascual, her husband of 53 years.
Within a year, the two were married and had moved to Las Vegas to start a family.
Throughout the years, and especially later in life after her husband’s death in 2013, Maria Urrabazo longed to return to the ranch in Texas, to see — just one more time — the place where she had fallen in love.
She did not get to visit the ranch before she died, but her children find comfort in knowing their parents are together again, Isaias Urrabazo said.
Known by family and friends as “foxy,” Maria Urrabazo was a straight shooter — spicier, even, than her homemade salsa, her children often joked.
But she was kind, too.
She drew you in with a hug and a homemade meal any time you entered her home. And her door was always open. She raised a neighbor’s daughter as her own. And when one of her son’s friends lost his mother, she took him in, too. In her official obituary, the two are listed as her children.
“That’s exactly what mom taught us: to be very giving,” Isaias Urrabazo said. “That’s an awesome legacy to leave behind.”
‘A new pair of wings’
On the morning of June 3, after 25 days in the hospital, Maria Urrabazo died.
“In life, she was a fighter,” Isaias’ husband, Steven Fehr, said. “She was such a strong woman, and we thought if anyone can beat this, she can do it. And there were really times where we thought she was going to beat it, but it just went downhill fast.”
Unable to visit his mother and brother, Tony, due to the hospital’s COVID-19 restrictions, Isaias Urrabazo, an artist, designed a handful of metal butterflies to display around the hospital’s parking lot.
Attached to each butterfly was a note that read, “Please PRAY for my mom and brother. They are in the hospital with Covid-19.”
“Mom loved butterflies, and so I did, too, as a kid,” Isaias Urrabazo said. “It represents new life. It’s this thing that eventually gains a new pair of wings, and that’s what happened to mom when she passed. She got a new pair of wings.”
On Friday, only one of the handful of butterflies could be found in the hospital parking lot. But its wings, despite sitting in the sun for almost two months, remain a fierce, bright blue.