Since local officials began reporting coronavirus-related deaths in San Antonio, 251 people have died. 

In the intensive care beds of private hospitals and in their homes, they took their last breath, most dying alone from the ravaging symptoms of a virus that takes the lives of both the vulnerable and the young.

Mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, neighbors and friends. The losses are felt by many greater than the few hundred listed deaths on a chart filled with COVID-19 data. And if the number of patients currently in hospitals and the warnings of administrators is any indication of what is to come, there could be more death, more loss, more pain for those left behind.

In an effort to give meaning to the statistics, the Rivard Report spent time recently with family members of two San Antonians who died this month. 

Emotions at times overcoming them, the children of Deborah Martinez and a niece of Richard Perez spoke of their immense and sudden loss, their fear of the virus spreading within the community, and how they are fighting to keep the pandemic from stealing the dignity in death their family members deserve.

‘She Was Our Comfort’

After nine days in the hospital, unable to breathe on her own and in severe pain, Martinez passed away July 5 from complications of COVID-19. She was 59 years old.

Hospital rules intended to control the spread of the virus meant none of her five children or 21 grandchildren was there to hold her hand or sit by her side on that day. Martinez lost consciousness in her final hours and was unable to respond during a Facetime call with her family just before she passed. 

Since then, the five siblings – Valerie, Leo, Mark, and Crystal Casias, and Debbie Westerhoff – have been together, talking daily with one another in person or by group chat about their mother and how they can honor her memory. 

Responding to a request for an interview, Crystal said they would talk together as a group, as they have done everything else in recent weeks. “We’re going to make her proud,” Crystal said. 

Coming together with her brothers and sisters is a comfort, Crystal said, because they weren’t able to be there for their mom as she lay dying. “Our hearts were broken … to think we weren’t able to say goodbye to her and hug her and kiss her and be by her bedside,” she said. “That’s the worst thing that we have to live with.”

(From left) Deborah Westerhoff, Leandro Casias, Valerie Casias, Mark Casias, and Crystal Casias sit with a framed portrait of their mother, Deborah Martinez, who lost her life to COVID-19. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

The family has always been close, said the oldest sibling, Valerie, who recently moved into a new house and was planning to have her mother stay with her when she was released from the hospital. 

Valerie misses their daily phone conversations and wishes they could spend time in the pool together like they were planning to just before one of the two times Martinez went into cardiac arrest while in the hospital. 

“Now I can’t even enjoy my new house because I’m seeing my mom everywhere in the house,” Valerie said. Martinez also won’t be here for the birth of her first great-grandchild, expected this year, she said.

Debbie, the second-oldest sibling, said she already misses her mother’s ready laugh. The two often went out to play lotería, which is where son Leo thinks his mother may have contracted the virus. 

“I gamble a lot, play poker, and I think that’s one thing I got from my mom,” Leo said. “She caught the virus doing what she loved.”

But Leo, who also contracted the virus but recovered, knew what getting sick with the virus would mean for his mother, and he warned her. 

“I spent seven days in the hospital and when I came out, I told my mom this thing was no joke,” Leo said. “If you catch this thing it’s going to be the end of you.” As a diabetic, Martinez was at particular risk. 

Now Leo lives with the firsthand knowledge of what his mother went through before she died.

The siblings worry that most people don’t realize how devastating and prevalent the virus really is and don’t take it seriously enough. “Our restrictions are not [enough]. … It’s sad,” Leo said.

Deborah Martinez’s children wrote a message on their car for Martinez, who lost her life to COVID-19. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Martinez died at Methodist Hospital Texsan on a Sunday. By the following Saturday, her children had organized a taco plate sale that raised $3,000 toward their mother’s funeral expenses. Donations poured in from friends and old classmates who said they remembered Martinez always smiling, Crystal said. 

Finding a funeral home available to handle the arrangements was harder. The first place they called told them that so many people were dying of COVID-19, bodies were being put in storage and no open caskets were being allowed. 

“Someone stated, ‘This is not the best time to die,’ and it’s like, there’s never a good time to die,” Crystal said. “But in reality, being with this pandemic all over this world, here in San Antonio, people don’t realize there’s no more room.”

Two of the five siblings have tested positive for coronavirus. Now their father is sick with COVID-19, as well, and afraid that if he goes to the hospital, he may not live to return home.

Too many people believe the pandemic isn’t real, Crystal said. But “it’s happening. It’s happening in our own communities.”

On July 12, Martinez’s children held a rosary that was limited by the funeral home to 25 people in attendance. The open casket was covered with Plexiglas, but it allowed family members, including 21 grandchildren, to say goodbye to the woman who was their mother and grandmother one last time. 

They had Martinez’s body cremated so her ashes could be placed at San Fernando Cemetery No. 2 with their grandmother. “When she passed, my mom brought us together,” Mark said. Now it’s their turn.

“It’s going to be a long recovery for all of us because this is all we have left with our mom,” Crystal said. “She was our comfort.”

‘My Last Song Won’t Be When I Die’

On the same day Martinez was laid to rest, Richard Perez, a well-known Christian radio personality and recording artist, breathed his last. Perez was 53 years old. 

He left behind his father, Sonny, and five sisters, along with nine nieces and nephews. His oldest niece, Monica Cortez, said Perez was admitted to Northeast Baptist Hospital on June 16. She last spoke with him the night before he was put on a ventilator for three weeks. 

“He said he couldn’t breathe,” Cortez said. “He said it was the worst feeling he ever felt. He kept telling us, ‘I’m not going to make it.’”

Photos of Richard Perez, a well-known Christian radio personality and recording artist who passed away from COVID-19, are set up in memory. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

But they also laughed and prayed together. “My uncle was asking for a lot of prayer,” she said. “He was seeking the Lord a lot during these scary moments for him.”

Perez also begged his family to take him home. “‘Please, please take me home. I don’t want to die here. I want to go home. Take me home to die. Please,’” she recalled him saying. “Of course, my family, we all got crazy and we’re trying to figure out how to take him home, and the nurse and the doctor said, ‘Absolutely not.’”

Perez was a longtime Christian Tejano vocalist who had recorded several albums and hosted a radio program, “Ministerios De Poder,” which aired on a number of radio stations. He also served as a pastor at the San Antonio Worship Center.  

“My uncle was well known all over San Antonio, especially during Fiesta,” Cortez said. “He came out in the Battle of Flowers and Fiesta Flambeau parades for over 25 years, so everyone knew him.”

Perez loved music and, as a single man with no children of his own, he was especially proud that his nieces and nephews continue in music, Cortez said. His favorite saying was “Echate un grito!”

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But Cortez loved best his performance of “Mi Ultima Cancion No Sera Cuando Me Muera,” (My Last Song Won’t Be When I Die), which will be played as the final song at a memorial service on Sunday. 

Perez also enjoyed attending funerals and going to the hospital to pray for people, she said. He would have wanted an auditorium full of people for his own funeral.

“God has a sense of humor, because we’re having to have limited people,” Cortez said. “My uncle was [known by] thousands and thousands of people, and now we only can have 30 people go into this funeral home.”

Monica Cortez holds a photo of her uncle Richard Perez, a well-known Christian radio personality and recording artist, who passed away from COVID-19 on July 5. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Cortez believes he contracted the virus at some point while residing in a public housing complex for people with disabilities. Perez had undergone quadruple bypass surgery, which might have put him at risk for a poor outcome once COVID-19 took hold. 

In his final moments, the family was able to visit with Perez over Facetime. “Before he took his last breath, he looked straight at us,” Cortez said, her voice breaking. “Never in my life would I have imagined this, my uncle, who wanted everything big.”

The loss has been especially hard for Perez’s 79-year-old father, Sonny Perez, she said. “This whole COVID pandemic is devastating. I mean truly it has stolen so many things from so many families.”

When Cortez spoke with the Rivard Report on Thursday, the family was trying to plan a memorial as sizable as Perez’s fandom and his personality. It will be held at Mission Park Funeral Chapel and livestreamed to a big screen in the parking lot. 

“Because he truly deserves it,” Cortez said. “He’s been an inspiration to many and he’s been there for so many people.”

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is a journalist and writer in San Antonio, and a business reporter for The Rivard Report.