Quick Take:

COVID-19 not only took the life of Gus Ceballos’s father, Jorge — who raised his family in Beach Flats while working the mushroom fields of Pescadero — it left him in an agonizing limbo, unable to grieve.

On Dec. 8, Gus Ceballos was in Santa Cruz and called his parents, Jorge and Ana Maria, in Salinas to wish them a happy anniversary, commemorating their wedding in St. Patrick’s Church in Watsonville 52 years earlier and toasting their long marriage. That was a happy day.

Ten days later, he stood in the yard of his parents’ home, feeling more alone and bereft than he ever had before, experiencing a heartbreak that has become a cruel theme of the year of COVID-19.

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Earlier that day, Gus had said goodbye to his father, who died at 76 hooked to a respirator in a hospital, a fate Jorge had feared and despised for years. That might have been the most painful moment of Gus’s life, but the day’s crippling anguish wasn’t quite over.

The virus had not only taken his dad, it had infected everyone in his entire extended family.

The quarantined Ceballos family — Ana Marie, her son Oliver, her daughter Alheli and her two grandchildren — absorbed the awful news that their beloved patriarch was gone.

Except Gus, who was left to stand in the yard and peer into the window at his family as they comforted each other in their grief. “There was nothing I could do,” he said, remembering that awful self-conscious moment. “So I just went home.”

A tribute to Jorge Ceballos.
A tribute to Jorge Ceballos. Credit: Courtesy Gus Ceballos

At that moment, Gus was not so angry at his anguishing predicament as he was at the circumstances of his father’s death, surrounded only by strangers in masks and gowns, unable to see or say goodbye to his one true love for more than half a century.

“COVID stripped my dad of his dignity,” he said. “He was a proud man. He wanted to pass away on his own terms. And for COVID to strip that away after he worked so hard his entire life makes me so angry.”

According to his son, Jorge Ceballos was always a headstrong and determined man. He had grown up on a ranch near the town of Zinapécuaro in central Mexico.

But he wanted to avoid the ranching life, so he earned a green card in the U.S. by joining the military reserves and followed work to Pescadero in San Mateo County, where he met Ana Maria.

For more than 30 years, he would work at the Campbell Soup mushroom farm near Pescadero, raising his family in the Beach Flats neighborhood of Santa Cruz. In the ’70s, he spearheaded a drive for a union on the farm, which meant calling for a strike, which lasted eight punishing months.

Gus said his mother had to dumpster-dive to keep the family fed. Eventually, the union was established and Jorge served as its first leader.

The strike episode, said Gus, was an indication of how his father lives his life, deciding on a worthwhile goal and then doggedly going after it. “He didn’t want the ranch life, so he came to America on his own. He pursued my mom, and he wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. That was how he lived his life.”

The Ceballos family in their Beach Flats home.
The Ceballos family in their Beach Flats home. Credit: Courtesy Gus Ceballos

As Gus sees it now, one virus compromised a decent hard-working man’s life by taking away a fitting final chapter. And he’s furious about it. That anger is personal, but it’s also political. With his father’s death coming deep into the pandemic, he is haunted by what might have been.

“He shouldn’t have been in that position 10 months after that very first shutdown,” Gus said. “It should have been a month or two at the max that we’d get everything taken care and we’d be back leading our lives by now.

“That’s what I’m angry at, the lack of leadership and the lack of caring at the very top of our government.”

Gus, Jorge and Ana Maria on the 4th of July.
Gus, Jorge and Ana Maria on the 4th of July. Credit: Courtesy Gus Ceballos

But the anguish is spiritual as well. In a moving recorded testimonial to his dad, Gus said, “The prayers didn’t work. The pleas made to God went ignored. It’s going to be a long time before faith returns to my family.”

Back home in Santa Cruz, Gus has still not seen his family in person since his father’s death. Another positive test from a family member in Salinas has triggered another quarantine.

He admits that much of his inner turmoil comes from being denied what he craves most, the presence of his loved ones.

“That’s what’s holding me back,” he said. “I still haven’t hugged my mom to console her. I haven’t touched my brother. I haven’t touched my sister. There’s a closure that I’m missing.”

Wallace reports and writes not only across his familiar areas of deep interest — including arts, entertainment and culture — but also is chronicling for Lookout the challenges the people of Santa Cruz...