At the Chávez home, in a Homestead farmworkers’ housing complex, there is no Christmas tree this year. The family also didn’t plan to have the traditional Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) dinner and didn’t get any presents for their kids.
After much whining from 4-year-old twins Itzel and Atzel, Marilú hung some old Christmas lights on the edge of the roof and on a bush in the front yard. But one recent night, when she tried to turn them on, they had burnt out.
It’s the last thing that Marilú and her husband, José Chávez, from El Salvador, needed.
José tries to explain: “This year has been ----.”
His voice breaks, his eyes tear up, and then he begins to suffocate. As if by instinct, he takes his hands to the strap around his neck that holds the tube inserted in his trachea, which allows him to breathe.
On the night of April 7, José, Marilú and the twins went to visit relatives who had just moved to a nearby neighborhood. They ate pupusas, a traditional Salvadoran dish, and hung out for a while. When it came time to leave, as they said their goodbyes while standing on the sidewalk, someone started shooting from a moving car.
A few seconds later, José was on the ground;,a bullet had pierced his neck. He was in a coma for several days. He woke up without any memory of the incident and thinking that he had been in a car accident.
Since then, he underwent three surgeries and can barely eat solid food.
“I felt a lot of anger when they told me that I’ll have to stay with this for the rest of my life,” said José, 36, referring to the tracheotomy he underwent.
The tragedy has left the family traumatized and drowning in debt. José can’t go back to his construction job because he can’t do any strong physical activity. And then there are the frequent hospital visits for therapy.
Now all the family’s expenses fall on Marilú’s shoulders. But her salary as an ornamental plants nursery worker isn’t enough to pay the rent and water, electricity and telephone bills. They already cut off the internet service and the hospital bills are stacking up. They must also pay for their kids’ therapy. Itzel and Atzel have nightmares regularly, are wetting the bed again (after being potty trained) and don’t want to be outside.
“We have survived with the little that I bring and with the help of friends,” said Marilú, 38.
The family was nominated for the Miami Herald’s Wish Book by the children’s teachers at the Homestead Redlands Christian Migrant Association’s child-care center.
If they could buy gifts for their children, Marilú and José said they would get them new beds. They would also like to repair the small AC units in their house, which have been broken since Hurricane Irma.
And what do Itzel and Atzel want from Santa this year?
“Tablets!” they shouted, followed by giggles.
Itzel also wants “a big doll house,” and Atzel dreams of having a car. “One that I can get inside and drive,” he says.
Marilú and José listen to their children and smile. These happy moments are scarce since the shooting. They have been replaced by confusion.
“[The children] ask me why my voice sounds different now, why I can’t work, why that happened,” José said. “I also ask myself the same question every day. I do not know what to tell them.”
He said the authorities have told him that, apparently, the targets of the drive-by shooting were people who no longer live in the house where the incident happened. The investigation is still open.
José arrived in the United States in 1999, when he was 18, to join his father, an agricultural worker, in Homestead. He worked in the field harvesting avocados before getting a job in construction.
Marilú arrived from El Salvador almost a decade ago.
In South Miami-Dade, they have lived a quiet life. They moved to the South Dade migrant housing complex when their children were less than a year old.
Although they come from one of the most violent countries in the world, Marilú and José said they were shocked by the April shooting.
“We are from San Miguel, in the countryside. Never, ever in my life had I seen anything like that,” said José.
“When the shooting started, I thought it was firecrackers,” Marilú recalled. “Someone had to yell at me, ‘Marilú, get down, they are firing shots!’”
Since then, the family does not leave the house much. Everyone is afraid of being on the sidewalk. Everyone gets scared when they hear fireworks. When they would go to the San Martín de Porres Catholic Church, the only public place they would frequent, José would sit close to the exit, “as a precaution,” he said.
And now he’s become too afraid to go to church, the place where he would seek peace. In November, he was watching television when he saw on the news that 26 people had been killed by a shooter at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
“Bullets and violence and shootings are everywhere. Now I’m more aware of all that,” said José.
RCMA, a nonprofit organization, got a therapist for the family, who visits them once a week. Each session costs $30.
“It’s a small sacrifice right now, but it has helped the children a lot,” said Marilú. “We do not want them to live with that trauma.”
This year, they planned to stay home instead of spending the holidays with family or friends. That’s probably going to upset the kids.
“But at least I’m alive,” José said. “It would be worse if I wasn’t with them anymore.”
How to help
Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook @MiamiHerald.com. (Most requested items: laptops and tablets for school, furniture, accessible vans.) Read more at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook