Scars, needs run deep for Mission family of mother, son who died in fire

A toy is seen in the lawn of a family home that burned early on Sunday, July 21, 2018, in Mission. A 37-year-old mother, her 5-year-old son and a 15-year-old family friend died in the fire. Four others were injured and two were taken in critical condition to San Antonio.

It has been more than a year since Leticia Lopez took in her niece and two nephews after they lost their mother and youngest brother in a house fire.

On July 22, 2018, Maria Izabel Maldonado, her 5-year-old son, Gustavo Maldonado, and Johnathan Palomarez, a 15-year-old family friend, died in the Mission fire.

Johnathan was the boyfriend of Leticia’s 16-year-old niece, and Gustavo was one of two twin brothers, and would be 7 years old today.

Fifteen months later, the cause of the fire has still yet to be determined, according to the family. Their father moved to Mexico and has not reached out since the accident, Leticia said.

Left to care for the children, Leticia has taken in her niece and two nephews, one of whom is 12 years old.

The morning of the fire, Leticia quit her job as a secretary of a landfill for the city of Edinburg to care for them full-time. The modest home already houses Leticia and her husband, Carlos Lopez, and at one time their 19-year-old son, Pedro Lopez, and she has since struggled to make room for the children of her sister-in-law, Maria.

They have a three-bedroom home in Mission. Carlos converted the home’s patio into a bedroom for the boys. But there is still not enough space.

“We do need something bigger, because we just don’t fit,” Leticia, 40, said while standing in her hallway, where two bedrooms, the kitchen and living room were all visible. “Especially when we eat, because we don’t have a (dining) table.

“My husband, me and son, we fit. But now, we can’t.”

When they all eat together at home, some use the kitchen counter, while the rest sit on the couches or living area floor. Leticia said that they would love to have a dining table, but doesn’t know where she would put it because there is no room for it.

They have plans to expand the house, though. A cement floor along the front side of the modest home has already been laid.

Although Leticia has a son, the responsibility of caring for three more children is new to her. At the time of the fire, her son Pedro was a high school senior.

“I only had one (kid), I never had to deal with all the fighting, but I guess it’s normal because they all are brothers and sisters,” the Mission native said, smiling in spite of the family’s meager living conditions as her nephews, who were seemingly getting along at the time, were both amused by a small toy. “I just take it day by day, I was not used to it (caring for children) anymore. With them, my whole schedule changes. I am with them from the morning, I cook the three meals, and then I am here waiting for them to get off of the bus.”

She also struggles to provide enough clothes and bed covers for all of them, especially her nephews, who are growing fast.

Leticia said that she does her best to be a mother figure for the kids, but knows that she will never replace Maria.

“I tell them that, ‘I wish with all of my heart to bring back your mom, but I can’t,” she said. “I tell them that I am never going to take her place, but what I am going to do is always be here for them.”

DEEP SCARS

One nephew, a student at a Mission school, can’t help breaking into tears when talking about his mother. He could only speak in fragmented sentences when remembering her, but the one thing he was able to say — as his aunt caressed his head — was: “My mom was always there when we were in bad things.”

Leticia, who has been a source of strength for the family as they’ve grieved, was even able to finish Nestor’s sentences.

Though he does not remember anything from the night of the fire, the young boy, who was 5 at the time, was flown to Shriners Burns Hospital in Galveston the morning after because of the severity of his burns. Third-degree burns covered about 80% of his body. The cartilage of his left ear is gone, and deep scars run down his back, arm and leg.

But his scars are just a small representation of the emotional trauma he has gone through.

Leticia stayed with him for three months at the Galveston hospital; where he had been informed two months into his stay there that his mother had died.

“He would cry and scream everyday, and I would tell him that we did not see her either,” she said. “The funeral was closed casket, we did not see her. So I would tell him that the way you remember her, that is the way we remember her, too.

“But I would just cry with him, too, because I did not know what to tell him.”

He has gone through more than a dozen surgeries, each of which, they make the commute to Galveston. In a couple of months, he is set to have laser surgery to smooth out the scars on his back.

He also shed tears while speaking about his gratitude for his tía.

“I am thankful for that she is almost like my mom, because she takes care of us and cooks for us and she will be there if something goes bad now, even when we fight,” he said.

And gratitude for their tía is spread across all the siblings.

Lying atop the living room table was a coloring page of a turkey that the younger nephew drew. Above the drawing, he wrote with crayon: “Thank you for my family.”

FINDING COMFORT

The last complete family photo of the Maldonados was taken at the niece’s quinceañera, which happened a week before the fire. They wore cowboy hats, and the niece posed next to her mom, wearing a champagne colored gown.

The niece’s birthday is actually in August, but said that her mom wanted to avoid hurricane season and planned the celebration a month early.

No one could have expected their mother’s knack for preparation to be the reason the event happened at all.

The niece smiles when she looks at pictures of her mother’s grave, which is adorned in colorful flowers and pinwheels. The headstone is in the shape of a heart, and small knick-knacks sit on it, including a toy dinosaur, toy cars and an egg.

“It stands out, I love it, it’s so pretty,” she said.

“I am fine, but I want to go back to my house,” she later added. “I want to go home to my mom.”

The niece, a junior at a Western Hidalgo County high school, like many students stresses about homework. She does not have a computer at home, and since most of her assignments have to be submitted online, she stays after school to do her work.

“I think about how my mom is proud of me for taking care of my brothers,” the niece said. “I say that she is proud, and that one day I will see her again.”

The family’s needs include clothes for the nephews, who currently fit into size 10/12 and small in shirts, 10/12 and 7T in pants, and 4 and 13 in shoes, respectively. The niece is in need of a laptop for schoolwork. Donations for the renovations of their homes would also help, and bed covers for everyone as winter looms.

For information on how you can donate to Leticia’s family, call the United Way of South Texas at (956) 686-6331, between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, and inquire about contributing to the Spirit of Christmas campaign. All donations go to the family.

United Way does not keep any of the proceeds donated.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to remove some of the identifiable information about the family.