Maria Hernandez isn’t a household name. She’s not famous. She was never a mayor or a congresswoman. But, her family says, the 91-year-old was tough.
“Let me tell you, my grandma was a fighter,” says Raquel Hernandez, one of Maria’s 10 grandchildren. “She was a stubborn lady – and she was just, like, a happy person.”
Maria died last week, a few days after testing positive for the coronavirus. And now her daughter Rosa Silvia Hernandez, who had been taking care of her, has the disease.
Maria grew up in San Miguel, El Salvador. Her parents died when she was young. She raised her six kids all on her own.
“She was very poor. She used to make bread and sell bread,” Gloria's daughter, Aisa Hernandez, says. “She would hustle for her money. She would do whatever it takes to raise her kids.”
In many ways, Maria was like a mother to Aisa. When she was just 3, Aisa and her brother went to live with Maria after Gloria moved to the U.S.
“She showed me to stay strong and be a good person,” Aisa says. “The best I could be. Be kind with others and, as well, be strong, you know?”
Ten year later, Aisa and her brother moved to the U.S. to be with their mother. It was hard leaving her grandmother, but two years later – in 1998 – Maria joined them in Austin.
“It was a big change because she didn’t know English; she didn’t understand the language. She only spoke Spanish,” Aisa says.
But Maria loved it here, being with some of her kids, her grandkids and, eventually, her nine great-grandchildren.
As she got older, Maria suffered a series of health problems, and she drew on that strength she had all her life to overcome them. On a trip to visit her oldest daughter in Spain, she picked up an infection and ended up having her leg amputated. Aisa says it didn’t slow her down.
“Even though she only had one leg, she would still cook, she would still somehow clean," she says. "She would do everything in the house. She was tough ... she was a very tough lady.”
Two years ago, Maria had a stroke. Doctors said she only had a few days to live. She was sent home from the hospital for hospice care.
“But that lady, she didn't give up,” Raquel says. “She couldn't move her hands. She couldn't eat anything. But she still [went] to therapy.”
Eventually, she recovered most of her abilities.
“She was just trying, always, always to prove people that whatever they were thinking — that they were wrong,” Raquel says.
And Maria tried to pass this strength on to her kids and grandkids. Last year, Raquel’s newborn daughter died. In the days that followed, Maria gave her some advice.
“Just like, ‘You need to get the strength out of nowhere, but you need to fight. You cannot just give up. And I understand that this is hard, but you have to keep going. You have to fight,’” Raquel recalls. “You know, those words encouraged me a lot. She was like, ‘You have to — you have to push yourself to the max. Nobody else will do it but you.’”
Maria’s family doesn’t know exactly how she got the coronavirus. At first they thought she had a cold, but as things got worse, they took her to the hospital. She tested positive on a Saturday, but her symptoms were mild and she was sent home Sunday. Rosa Silvia took care of her, while the rest of the family stayed away.
Maria died the following Tuesday.
Her body will be cremated – though that’s not what she wanted.
“It’s heartbreaking because she wanted to be buried in Central America with her brothers – and we can’t even do that for her,” Aisa says.
The Hernandez family plans to bring Maria’s ashes to El Salvador, but who knows when they’ll be able to do that safely.
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Rosa Silvia Hernandez.
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