McALLEN, Texas -- The family is waiting on the lawn when Juan Lopez arrives. He walks into the house, down a hall, through a door. Amalia Tinoco lies on a bed, a 91-year-old grandmother dead after battling the coronavirus. The family won't admit it at first, but Lopez, a man so familiar with death that funeral directors call him by a nickname, knows the story.
His business is moving bodies. The grim glide of his black Cadillac Escalade is a frequent sight these days on the back roads and city streets of the Rio Grande Valley. The pandemic has brought an unrelenting tide of death to the borderlands: He has gone from transporting 15 bodies a week to 22 a day.
"So many bodies ... I lost count," he said.
Lopez is brisk in his task. He travels with an N95 mask, a hooded protective suit and instincts sharpened over time.
"I treat all bodies like a COVID because people lie," he said. "You ask, 'Do they have COVID?' and they say, 'No, he just had a little cough,' because there are a lot of funeral homes that are not taking them."
Funeral directors know Lopez, 45, as chilango, the guy from Mexico City. He was a latecomer to the valley, arriving at 14 when his parents moved their six children north to join relatives from Los Angeles. They became U.S. citizens. Lopez learned to speak the Spanglish valley vernacular, English punctuated with "¡N'ombre!" (No way!) "Mande?" (What?) and "¡No manches, guey!" (For real?)
He has transported bodies for 20 years. Much of that time he has held a contract to move them for Hidalgo County, epicenter of the valley's COVID pandemic. He picks them up from hospitals, nursing homes, crime scenes and even alleys. He has ferried all kinds to funeral homes and morgues: Two police officers killed in a shooting last month, decapitated cartel victims and migrant children who drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande.
He has been divorced three times, mainly because he's on the road so much. His ex-wives got jealous, he said, convinced he was with la otra, another woman. One of his exes hired a private investigator and secretly installed a tracker on his car, only to discover that his constant companion was ... bodies.
The job is often messy. His first case was a suicide, a 24-year-old woman who had shot herself in the head with a 12-gauge shotgun. But Lopez has never seen anything like the onslaught of COVID-19 deaths in the valley now, almost all Latino, many with familiar faces.
The spike in COVID-19 cases is contributing to a disproportionate number of Latinos dying statewide. As of Saturday, 826 people had died of the disease in the valley, about 12% of the state total, even though the area accounts for about 5% of Texas' population. Half of the 6,837 Texans who died of COVID-19 were Latino, according to state health figures, although Latinos make up about 40% of the population.