Tanya Marun, 35, has celebrated Christmas at her cousin Mitzy Cordero’s house in Dallas for as long as she can remember. “Have you eaten?” Tanya’s aunts always ask the moment someone walks through the door. Lights twinkle outside the house; inside, garland lines the fireplace and color-coordinated ornaments hang from the Christmas tree. Tables are crammed into the living room for dinner, awaiting the 25 members of the extended Cordero family. The place is always loud with laughter.
“Literally everyone shows up,” Tanya says, counting off her relatives. Aunts, uncles and cousins usually arrive in waves, beelining to say hello to Petra Lira Cordero, Tanya’s 89-year-old grandmother. Christmas is known in the family as Petra’s holiday. Tanya remembers watching her grandmother dance when she was younger, pulling relatives out of their chairs to join her.
Dinner is the main event. It’s a smorgasbord: tamales, carne asada, barbecue ribs, takeout supplied by the single cousins. One year, Sandra, Mitzy’s mom, made green spaghetti, a traditional Mexican dish with poblano peppers, only to find that the pasta wasn’t green enough to her liking. She added spinach, then food coloring.
The spaghetti turned neon green, and the cousins have teased her about it every Christmas since. Despite their initial horror, they ate all the spaghetti that year.
“We’re not the type to be like, ‘Oh, I love you’ when you leave. We do not say the ‘l’ word around here,” says Mitzy, 30. “We make fun of each other.”
But there was no teasing two weeks ago when Tanya, who lives 1,000 miles away in Tempe, Ariz., called Mitzy to tell her she wouldn’t be coming home this year. Nor when Tanya, choking up, called to break the news to her youngest cousin Karla Pulido, who lives in Austin. “It was a tough decision, but if anyone in my family got sick because of me or if my boyfriend got sick because of me, I just couldn’t live with that,” Tanya says.
Christmas will be different this year for Tanya’s family, and for millions across the country, because of the pandemic. Despite public health warnings, some will still travel — airports screened nearly 9.5 million people in the week before and weekend after Thanksgiving — to attempt to find a sliver of normalcy. Those who make the impossible decision to stay apart will likely experience a holiday far from the usual.
But for Tanya’s family, it’s not only the pandemic that has changed their holiday plans. Petra, their matriarch, passed in early March, before the pandemic had shifted everyone’s lives. This will be their first Christmas without her. “I think in a lot of ways our family will change what the holidays look like — outside of covid — now that she’s gone,” Tanya says. “My grandmother was the glue that brought everyone together.”
As many families resign themselves to a pandemic holiday this year, big questions loom regarding the future for the Corderos. What will it mean to return to “normal” when there’s no normal to go back to? How does a family cope with change and loss in the middle of a pandemic?
Tanya was the first cousin to leave Texas. In Dallas, everyone in her family lives within driving distance of each other. Mitzy, along with her husband, now lives in the house she grew up in; she bought it from her mom five years ago, unable to imagine another family living in it.
Tanya didn’t plan to leave. She had grown up with Mitzy, even living with her and her mom when she was younger and, later, with another aunt. (For some time, Tanya lived with her mom, who now lives in Mexico.) When Tanya went to college, she moved just 45 minutes away. She was always close enough to visit her grandmother each weekend and, sometimes, during the week.
So when Tanya decided to move to Arizona to live with her boyfriend in October 2014, it was a big deal. Tanya, a self-described planner, had given herself a year to find a job before moving, but just a month into her search, she got a job offer from Arizona State University, where she now works in the dean’s office. She would have to move right after Christmas.
Tanya knew her family would be supportive, but she was nervous to tell them. Specifically, she was worried about telling her grandmother: “I was kind of her favorite and she wasn’t afraid to tell people that.”
Once Tanya moved, her grandmother kept a tally of how long she had lived out of state. “You’ve lived in Arizona a year and two months. When are you coming back?” Petra would ask Tanya every time they spoke on the phone.
Tanya did come home — first, to visit over the summer and for every holiday, and then, less so, once she learned how expensive and tiring it was to fly for Thanksgiving and Christmas back-to-back. She opted for Christmas. After all, everyone came for Christmas, even relatives who weren’t as tightknit as Tanya and her core group of cousins.
Last year, after traveling to Dallas for Thanksgiving, Tanya broke tradition. She decided not to go home for Christmas; she and her boyfriend ultimately spent the holiday in Las Vegas.
“I have a lot of guilt because ... I didn’t get to spend one last Christmas with my grandma,” Tanya says, choking up. “I didn’t imagine that she would be gone this year, so I made the decision not to go home last year. And I didn’t expect a global pandemic to hit.”
This year, Tanya doesn’t feel guilty about not going home. “Everything that I’m reading and seeing [about the pandemic] just reinforces the fact that I made a good decision,” she says. Tanya knows how unexpected the virus can be — over the summer, her boyfriend had a relatively moderate case of covid-19; he was sick for a month. “I’ve seen what it can do to someone,” says Tanya, who didn’t test positive.
She tries not to be judgmental when she hears about friends and people in the Tempe community, which is a college town, disregarding pandemic guidelines. “I want to see my cousins … but I’m making the decision not to go so that we can hopefully have a ‘normal’ holiday season” next year, Tanya says.
And yet even without the pandemic, “normal” has shifted for Tanya’s family with Petra’s passing, and the family hasn’t had a chance to establish a new normal together. Tanya also pins the change to another family dynamic — relatives getting older, getting married and having children of their own. “I think it’s natural as people grow up,” she says. “It’s just a little bit weird to think about sometimes.”
In January, Karla, who is the youngest cousin at 26, will be the second to move out of state. In Austin, Karla is a three-hour car ride from her family, but she recently got a job in social media and content strategy in Brooklyn.
“This was going to be the last time for a while I’d see my cousins until the next holiday,” Karla says. This holiday felt particularly important for their bonding because Karla had become much closer with Tanya and Mitzy this year.
“I was the baby of all of our cousins and no one wanted to hang out with me because I was a kid and lived further away growing up,” Karla says. “Now as an adult, me and my cousins stick together and form bonds by ourselves without our parents, aunts and uncles.”
For Mitzy, a fateful group chat substitution changed the dynamic earlier this year — one cousin wanted out of the active texting group and Karla was added in her place. Tanya says that her grandmother’s passing was what “brought us closer.”
The pandemic, ironically, has further fostered their closeness — creating a support system to counter the rest of the family’s growing up and growing apart. Since March, Karla, Tanya and Mitzy have been video-chatting and texting frequently. Sometimes, they hop on the phone to play “Among Us” or a game on the app Houseparty.
“In a weird way, my being far away has forced us to be a little bit more creative to maintain our relationship,” Tanya says. “Karla’s moving to New York is — I don’t want to say another test, but gives us more opportunity to continue building our relationship.”
This Christmas Eve, Tanya and her boyfriend might cook a ham. They’ll put up a Christmas tree and watch some holiday movies. Tanya will call her mom in Mexico, a long-distance phone conversation that never gets any easier. At some point in the day, she’ll video-chat Mitzy and Karla to play some games, a consolation for their usual in-person Uno faceoffs, which are a Christmas favorite.
Meanwhile, in Dallas, for the first time in nearly 20 years, no one will spend Christmas at Mitzy’s house, even though she says she’s already decorated it “like a psychopath” in anticipation of guests.
Instead, Mitzy will spend Christmas at her sister’s house with her immediate family. They’ll try to do it outside, Mitzy says — for Thanksgiving, they set up tables 10 feet apart outside and ordered takeout.
Karla, who lives alone, will quarantine before driving home to stay with her mom and younger brother in Fort Worth.
It’ll be “a game-time decision” whether Karla goes to see Mitzy. If she does, she says, she’ll keep her mask on the whole time. Mitzy pleaded that Karla at least drop off her annual contribution to the feast — a box of pan dulce. “She was like, ‘You can just put it in my car and go home,’” Karla says, laughing. “I feel wrong not doing it. Mitzy always looked forward to it.”
Karla knows there’s a risk in seeing her family. She knows there was a risk, too, when they all gathered in early March for their grandmother’s funeral, with elderly relatives flying in from Mexico. This was before the pandemic was declared a national emergency; people didn’t yet know to stay home, social distance and wear masks. And this was before more than 317,000 Americans died of the virus, with families having to limit or entirely forgo funerals.
“We were lucky enough to be all together for my grandma’s funeral, but a lot of people don’t have that luxury,” Karla says. “Covid threw everything out the window where you can’t celebrate [the losses] or the happy times, like my getting this job and moving.”
The pandemic may give the illusion that life will resume when it’s over, but Tanya and her family know that things will look different on the other side — their grandmother won’t be there, Karla will live 1,500 miles away, and the dynamics of the family will continue evolving.
But at the same time, Tanya, Mitzy and Karla have each other in a way they didn’t before.
“We’re growing up and we’re adults,” Tanya says. “We can make our own tradition.”
Tanya and her cousins are already dreaming of next year: Christmas in New York. “In this vision, covid is not a thing, or it’s under control,” Tanya says. They’ll sit in an audience to watch the Rockettes. They’ll go see the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. They’ll visit the Statue of Liberty and Central Park. And with some luck, they’ll have their first white Christmas.