Woman makes painful journey from Mexico to Toronto to pick up father's remains

Vianet Lázaro is in Toronto to take her father's remains back to Mexico with her. He died of COVID-19 in May 2021. (Spencer Gallichan-Lowe/CBC News - image credit)
Vianet Lázaro is in Toronto to take her father's remains back to Mexico with her. He died of COVID-19 in May 2021. (Spencer Gallichan-Lowe/CBC News - image credit)

"Preciosa … blanca blanca"

You can hear the wonder in Salomon Lázaro's voice as he walks down the street after a fresh snowfall, narrating a brief cellphone video to his family in Mexico.

His daughter Vianet Lázaro, 28, has arrived in Canada to take his remains home. While here, she's been experiencing that snow her father loved so much.

"He always wanted me to explore," she said in a recent interview, speaking in Spanish, "to see more places, not to limit myself, and to be curious."

She's visiting all the places from her father's photos and videos, a bittersweet adventure she never could have imagined.

Her father died as a result of COVID-19 in May, 2021, at the age of 48. He was both undocumented and Latino, two communities disproportionately affected by the virus.

Submitted by Vianet Lázaro
Submitted by Vianet Lázaro

Lázaro remembers when her father first told them he didn't feel well. He had a fever, but still went to work at a construction site, because there weren't a lot of shifts and he wanted to take advantage of work when he could. He said others at the job site were also ill.

Lázaro says her father lived in a home with around 15 people, sharing a kitchen and bathroom. He wasn't vaccinated, as vaccines were just becoming more widely available.

"He didn't want to be hospitalized. He was afraid they'd intubate him," she remembers, adding that he finally went in when he had trouble breathing.

'I was maybe the last person to speak with him'

She says he'd call or leave voice messages for family from the hospital, trying to sound positive, insisting he'd see them soon and that he was feeling better.

"But sometimes the call would cut off, because he couldn't speak anymore ... he couldn't breathe."

She remembers their last video call.

"I was maybe the last person to speak with him," she said through tears. "I remember him smiling but he also looked exhausted."

He said he was fine, but also told her, "Take care of your mother, take care of your siblings. I love you."

Submitted by Vianet Lázaro
Submitted by Vianet Lázaro

She says her father spent around a week on a ventilator before he died. The hospital called to tell her, though she was uncertain at first what the person was saying.

For more than a year, his ashes have been stored at San Lorenzo Anglican Church, a Spanish-speaking congregation located in an area of Toronto with many Latino immigrants near Lawrence Avenue and Dufferin Street.

Recently, the church held a service to honour her father and to say goodbye.

In front of the congregation, Father Hernán Astudillo picked up a wooden box holding Lazaro's remains, blessing them.

Spencer Gallichan-Lowe/CBC News
Spencer Gallichan-Lowe/CBC News

At the side of the stage were three dark-coloured velvet bags. Astudillo says they contain the remains of three other migrants who also died as a result of COVID-19.

"We have many Latin American immigrants who died with no families," Astudillo said.

Over the course of the pandemic, he says he's led 129 funerals of people who died with COVID-19. He says all were Latin American immigrants and estimates 70 per cent of them were undocumented.

"It is a huge, huge spiritual, emotional and mental impact," Astudillo said.

Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC News
Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC News

Those velvet bags at the front of the church sit at the feet of a statue of Archbishop Óscar Romero. The Catholic leader in El Salvador was known for his commitment to the poor and fight against injustice. He was assassinated in 1980 while leading mass.

Astudillo sees the migrant struggle as an injustice in Canada that needs to be dealt with by political leaders.

It's "an urgent moment," he said, listing off what he feels is needed.

"Food, education, affordable housing, health. It's really a mandate for every government."

Syed Hussan, executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, says it's difficult to track exactly how many undocumented or migrant workers died of COVID-19 in Ontario or Canada, though there is tracking for those working in agriculture.

Turget Yeter/CBC News
Turget Yeter/CBC News

Similar to Astudillo's experience, he says members of his organization attended dozens of funerals just in the first six months of the pandemic.

"What people are facing is effectively a human rights catastrophe," said Hussan.

His organization has been pushing the federal government to grant permanent residency to all undocumented workers. The federal government has said it's working on a program to regularize the status of up to 500,000 immigrants.

"We need to ensure that the people who live here have the same rights as everyone else and that's only possible with full and permanent immigration status."

'I see that he's left behind something good'

For Vianet Lázaro, coming to Canada, seeing what her father's life was like, she worries migrant workers are only treated as pawns.

But she also feels a renewed closeness and connection with him."Maybe I wasn't there in his last days," she said, but through meeting people who knew and cared about him in Toronto, "I see that he's left behind something good. That comforts me a lot."

Lázaro has been working through the required paperwork to return her father's remains to Mexico.

She says it's hard for the family not to have his body to bury and a gravesite to pray at, but that taking back his ashes is crucial, to at least have some form of remains.

She says taking the ashes back to Mexico is a way to bring her father back home, to hopefully bring her whole family the healing and closure she's felt here in Canada, more than a year and a half after his death.