Mona Noriega and Evette Cardona Credit: Emmanuel Garcia

Dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic when one lives alone can be difficult enough–but when a couple or family are involved, there are distinctly different dynamics and hurdles to navigate.

Longtime Latina lesbian couple Evette Cardona and Mona Noriega recently talked about how they both dealt with contracting COVID and living with family.

Andrew Davis: With couples, the quarantine situation either brought them closer together or just split them apart.

Mona Noriega: Well, fortunately, we’ve been together for 25 years. The COVID pandemic actually coincided with my retirement, so I was prepared to take a step back from the craziness of those years with the city. [Noriega was with the Chicago Commission on Human Relations, and was named this year to the Illinois Commission on Discrimination and Hate Crimes.] Emotionally, I was kind of ready to take a step back and heal from so much work. We hosted a party and then we went to Mexico for 10 days—but when we got back, the world had changed.

Evette Cardona: I had started to work from home while Mona retired so, in that way, it sort of worked. We were pretty fortunate. I’m blessed to be in a job where I could work from home. [Cardona is vice president of programs at Polk Bros. Foundation.] We came home on March 10 and on March 13, I went to work and picked up my laptop—intending to work from home for two or three weeks. But I’ve only been back twice. It was nice to be together, but we didn’t get to do all the traveling we thought we’d do once she retired.

Regarding COVID, you both dealt with the disease directly.

MN: Yes. I think our experience with COVID was more about how we dealt with it in the context of family. Evette never had the option of not seeing her parents, as she is their caretaker. And we live in a two-flat, so my son, his girlfriend, and his daughter (our grandchild) would come two or three days a week. And my sister also comes by a lot. So although we didn’t go out a lot and socialize, we would test [frequently] to make sure we didn’t asymptomatically pass it on to her parents. And then, lo and behold, we got it!

EC: We got it at the beginning of December. I tested positive and then, a couple days later, Mona tested positive. Thank the goddesses it was just a mild case—and we didn’t infect any of the family members in the house here, or the parents.

How did you manage to not do that?

MN: We kept wearing masks and never touched them. Whenever we had to do something for them, we wore masks—and got [others] to wear masks.

EC: Andrew, we were damn lucky. My father has advanced Parkinson’s, and he’s been isolated since 2018. I was more worried about my mother; she was always going out shopping. But she was really good about wearing the mask and washing her hands. But for us to get mild cases and not [full-on COVID]? Thank the goddesses.

MN: The other thing we did after being diagnosed was to lock the front door. The reason we did that is because we live in a two-flat, and sometimes the grandchild will pop right in. So we locked the door, and both my sister and my son periodically put food by the front door, and his girlfriend sometimes made us food. So once we had it, we weren’t letting anyone in the house.

I didn’t want my daughter, who lives in Florida, to get on a plane and visit for Christmas—and that was hard for her. She hadn’t seen her brother in about a year. But once we had COVID and recovered, I was ready to fly there to see that child. 

EC: We got tested to make sure we were negative. And I have a brother who is close by, so he was able to take mom where she needed to go. And if we needed family members, we had them—we’re fortunate that way. And, yes, we locked those doors! [Laughs] And fortunately the quarantine period was ten days or so—so we [eventually got] tested again. That was scary as hell.

To this day, I’m not sure how I caught it. I wore masks and Mona actually makes masks. I washed my hands constantly but I don’t know—someone sneezes across the street and the wind picks it up and maybe I got it that way. But once we had it, we felt we had some protection. When we traveled in January, O’Hare and the plane were empty and we were pretty lucky. Now we’re both fully vaccinated, so we’re thinking about traveling some more.

When you had COVID, what symptoms did you experience?

MN: I had debilitating headaches and my limbs ached terribly. My headaches made me so [nauseated] that I couldn’t eat. So we lost a couple pounds. But the one thing I thought was interesting was that there was some kind of hallucinogenic component to it. When I was sick, I would just fall into bed and I felt like I was floating—like an acid trip or a dream.

EC: For me, about five days into it, I felt similar: tired and achy, with a slight fever. We never lost our senses of taste and smell that much, although the pizza we ordered didn’t seem to taste like the pizza we had before. And there was one night I felt my dream sequences were very vivid—a combination of work and family. So we were pretty knocked out for about a week, but it took about four or five weeks to feel about 99 percent.

MN: About two or three weeks after getting the symptoms, I decided to try to cook. As I was adding the spices, I realized I couldn’t smell them. And then, maybe a month later, I went to drink red wine—and I spit it out. I still can’t drink it, although I can have white wine. Red wine tastes like vinegar, although it smells wonderful. 

And after you got vaccinated, did you two have any similar effects?

MN: Again, I was knocked out, along with the terrible aches. The second vaccine didn’t knock me out as much; I was only in bed half the day.

EC: Mona got the Pfizer and I got the Moderna. The first shot took me out 24 hours later, and lasted about 36 hours. Again, I had headaches, body aches, and fever. Once I broke the fever, I was alright. It was such a weird feeling to go from feeling like a truck hit you to “Okay—I’m ready to go.” The second shot didn’t affect me as much; I was a little tired. But even if it had been doubly worse, I would’ve gone through it. I’m happy we were able to get fully vaccinated, as well as our family. 

The day after the second vaccine, I just laid on the couch and milked it. I watched some bad TV and ate some bad food. It was awesome!

What would be your advice to people who are reluctant to get vaccinated?

MN: I know it’s hard to imagine the fear or anxiety that you have potentially infected your family—and, for me, that fear was terrifying. So I just want to say that you should get vaccinated to protect those who are more vulnerable—and we don’t really know who that is. You think it’s someone who’s older, but plenty of younger people have suffered. 

EC: Ditto, Andrew. It really isn’t about you; it’s about the people around you, and you never know who you could infect—or what could happen to you. We’ve seen 104-year-old people survive it, and we’ve seen 22-year-old football players go down fast. I trust the science, and I trust Dr. Fauci. I know the Johnson & Johnson thing flipped people out, but you’ve got to trust the science.

MN: I think it’s a bad message [for some], because science has been used in racist ways. I trust Dr. Fauci, but you have to look at the scientists and the process of [producing] the vaccines. I don’t think it’s good to say “trust the science” because of the way science has been used. I do trust the science if I can at least claim an understanding of the process and the people behind it. 

With everything that has happened this past year, what have you learned about yourselves?

MN: I’ve learned to be thankful for my friendships. It’s true that the most trusted friendships are the ones we’re able to hold on to during these periods of isolation. Maybe also to have more patience when things don’t go well.

EC: I really realized how much of a homebody I am. [Laughs] I also realized how fortunate I am to have a home as well as access to food, medicine, family, and companionship—I have access to so much. I learned how blessed and privileged I am. All I had to do to be safe was stay home, wear a mask, and wash my hands; I still caught COVID, but I digress.

Another thing I’ve learned about myself this past year is that, despite my privileged position in a privileged field of work, I am not considered an essential worker. That has been very humbling!  v

This coverage is made possible by support from the Chicago Foundation for Women

This story was written in collaboration with ALMA Chicago to share and archive the stories of LGBTQ Latinx individuals in Chicago during the COVID-19 pandemic. For more information, visit ALMAChicago.org