A tight-knit Westside neighborhood and its elderly patriarch fall to one of COVID-19’s most deadly sieges

After serving in the Korean War, Tom Armijo moved from a tiny town in New Mexico to Long Beach in the 1950s with the dream of finding a good job and buying a home for his growing family.

He found a modest two-bedroom on Baltic Avenue just west of the Los Angeles River in a blue-collar Westside neighborhood and went to work as a plumber for the city of Long Beach. He eventually was able to buy his parents a home on the same street, and then purchased another one just blocks away that he repaired and rented to his sister.

For 70 years, Armijo lived in the same Westside neighborhood, where he gave the neighborhood children odd jobs doing yard and plumbing work for cash and bologna sandwiches. The kids were called “Tommy workers.”

“He was the patriarch of our family, always going above and beyond to help us,” said his niece, Lorraine Griego.

But in the end, the family could do little to help him as the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the Westside, killing people at a higher rate than in other parts of the city.

By early February, the small census tract where Tom shared a home with his 67-year-old son, James, had the highest COVID-19 death rate in Long Beach, with more than a dozen fatalities.

On Feb. 2, after more than two weeks at St. Mary Medical Center, Thomas Arturo Armijo became one of his neighborhood’s dozen-plus COVID-19 deaths at the age of 90. Four days later, the virus also ended the life of his son and housemate, James, who died one week before the birth of his first grandson.

Longtime Westside residents Thomas Armijo, 90, and his son James Armijo, 67, both died of COVID-19 in February.

Health officials aren’t exactly sure why Armijo’s Westside neighborhood has a higher death rate, but they suspect that factors such as density, poverty, high numbers of essential workers and multiple generations of families living under one roof have all contributed to the community’s heightened health risks and grief. The ZIP code for the area has the city’s largest average household size, with about four people per household.

The COVID rates in the Armijo family’s neighborhood highlight the stark disparities and longstanding health inequities compared to Long Beach’s more affluent neighborhoods on the east side, where the pandemic has taken a far less aggressive toll.

To gain a better understanding of these dynamics, the Long Beach Post obtained data for the city’s top 10 census tracts with the most COVID cases and deaths. (Skilled nursing facilities were excluded to better reflect community spread of the virus.)

The numbers show that all of the tracts with the highest rates are in dense, low-income neighborhoods in West, Central and North Long Beach.

As of early February, the largely residential census tract where Armijo lived, which spans from Hill Street north to Willow Street and Santa Fe Avenue east to the Los Angeles River, had seen 16 deaths, the highest rate in Long Beach. The second highest was in Downtown, where there were 12 deaths in a tract spanning from Seventh to Anaheim streets and Martin Luther King to Atlantic avenues.

The broader Westside ZIP code of 90810, where Tom lived, also had the city’s highest death rate, with 56 fatalities. While the Westside doesn’t have the overall highest number of COVID cases, it does contain five neighboring census tracts with either the highest infection or death rates.

Here’s a look at the life and losses of one extended Long Beach family, in a neighborhood where COVID-19 has put residents in its crosshairs.

An American Dream

Like many residents on the Westside, Tom Armijo was all about family and community. His two brothers and two sisters moved to the Westside, all within a few miles. Over the decades, dozens of Armijo family members populated nearly every block from Santa Fe Avenue to the Los Angeles River.

Armijo’s son, Hilbert Armijo, said his father and mother, Timotea, who also came from a small town in New Mexico, found what they believed was the perfect neighborhood to raise their two sons—a place where the boys could walk to Garfield Elementary school and then to classes at St. Lucy Catholic Church as they grew older.

Timotea, who died from a heart condition in 2006, worked for more than 40 years as a dietitian at Pacific Hospital, while her husband worked for 25 years for the city of Long Beach before retiring and starting his own business, Tommy’s Plumbing.

Hilbert said his father enjoyed coming to the aid—for free—of neighbors in need of plumbing rescues.

“I would always say, ‘Dad, why don’t you charge them?’ And he would say, “Aw, I’m not gonna charge ‘em, they don’t have any money,’” Hilbert recalled. “He was a very generous man.”

Tom Armijo serving in place of a cousin’s deceased father at a wedding.

Hilbert, 65, who is a Long Beach city traffic engineer, said the Westside neighborhood where he grew up is still filled with longtime homeowners. He said he recognizes some of them from his newspaper route as a boy. Hilbert has since moved to the Wrigley area of Long Beach but likes to visit the comfort and stability of his old neighborhood.

Hilbert said the neighborhood has long been a melting pot of churches and working class families from different backgrounds. Growing up there in the ‘50s and ‘60s, he said, the area had many Black residents and Japanese families from the fishing industry.

“Everyone got along together, we would all hang out as kids,” he said. “I still see some of the old-timers sitting out on the porch.”

The children all went to St. Lucy Catholic School at 23rd Street and Santa Fe Avenue, where their dad served as an usher at the adjacent church for many years.

After Tom retired from the city, you could spot him in his noisy green work truck delivering food from local markets to needy neighbors. He’d give jobs to neighborhood youngsters who no one else would hire and put his nieces and nephews and many of their friends to work mowing, raking and weeding. The kids would sometimes get fired for goofing off, but Tom always hired them back, said niece Lorraine.

“He taught his many nieces and nephews how to be responsible and good workers and we learned early about the value of a dollar—we earned our spending money from the ‘yards’ we did every Saturday, starting at 6 a.m.,” she said.

Over the decades, the neighborhood began to evolve, growing more dense and diverse with Latino, Pacific Islander and Filipino immigrants drawn by the affordable homes and proximity to good schools.

Tom didn’t mind the changes at all, his son said. “He got along with everybody.”

He bonded with his Filipino neighbors while riding on the same bus to play blackjack at Morongo Casino in Cabazon.

“He would come back and ask them, ‘Hey did you win anything?’” his son recalled.

Prentice Head III, a pastor at St. Paul Baptist Church who has lived in Tom’s census tract for more than a decade, said the area has struggled with crime in the past but residents from different backgrounds have come together for a stronger neighborhood watch.

“It’s much safer than it used to be,” he said.

Except for a virus that stealthily exploited the close community’s unique characteristics.

A perfect storm for COVID-19

The census tract where Tom lived contains the neighborhood known as “Little Manila” because of its large number of Filipino immigrants. The tract is 43% Asian, the highest percentage in Long Beach, according to the California Healthy Places Index. The tract also has one of the area’s highest density rates with more occupants per room than most other parts of the city.

Long Beach has an estimated 30,000 Filipino residents, and many are essential workers in multi-generational households, said Romeo Hebron, executive director of the Filipino Migrant Center.

Hebron said he knows of many Filipino families on the Westside who have been hit by COVID.

“They don’t have the luxury of working from home,” he said.

Emily Holman, Long Beach’s communicable disease controller, said there are many factors on the Westside that make for a perfect storm of COVID spread.

“Any time we see multi-generational households with more people living under the same roof and with many of them essential workers we see higher rates of COVID and other respiratory diseases,” she said. “The essential workers potentially expose themselves and then bring it home to the rest of the household.”

Holman noted that people of color are more likely to be hospitalized and die from COVID compared to White residents. She said the health department is especially alarmed by the high number of deaths in the city’s Pacific Islander population, which could be one reason for the Westside’s high death rate compared to other areas of the city.

City numbers show that Pacific Islanders are dying from COVID at a higher rate than any other race. They are nine times more likely to be hospitalized and seven times more likely to die compared to White residents.

Holman said the city is keeping an eye on the numbers.

“There could possibly be a genetic component but a lot is unknown right now,” she said.

For now, Long Beach is focusing its efforts on bringing the COVID-19 vaccine to hard-hit neighborhoods like the Westside. But like so many thousands of others in Los Angeles County, Tom and his eldest son, James, fell ill before they could take advantage of the life-saving injections.

Remembering two Armijos  

James had been living in Colorado with his wife when he decided to move back to the Westside about two years ago to care for his father, who was suffering from kidney disease and needed dialysis treatments.

A retired grocery worker, James started working at Alpha Beta food market on Willow Street and Baltic Avenue at the age of 15 and then switched to an Albertsons. He stayed with the company for nearly 50 years as a member of the Retail Clerks’ Union.

He and his father were always very close. Tom could sometimes be seen washing his son’s Albertsons uniform.

“He didn’t think Jimmy got it clean enough,” Hilbert recalled. “‘Cleanliness is godliness’ was his favorite saying.”

Like his father, James was also beloved in the neighborhood and well-known from his decades of working at the local supermarkets.

A diehard Dodgers fan, James was known to take his many nieces and nephews to the games on days when there were free gifts, like bats or other tokens, and would then keep souvenirs for himself, much to the chagrin of the kids, his brother recalled with a chuckle.

Family members aren’t sure how the father and son contracted COVID. Before the pandemic, the pair would take the bus together to Morongo Casino, but it’s unknown whether they went during the pandemic.

“He wouldn’t tell me when they would go to the casino because he knows we’d get mad at him,” Hilbert said of his brother.

James, Thomas and Hilbert Armijo on a painting job in the late 1990s.

James first started showing signs of illness in early January with a cough and heavy breathing that made him sound like had just sprinted around the block. James insisted he was fine and was taking NyQuil.

But when his condition grew worse, his brother insisted he get a COVID test at Cabrillo High School down the street. James refused, saying he had heard that someone’s face became paralyzed after the test. His brother thinks that James, weakened by his condition, was experiencing bouts of confusion.

Hilbert, for his part, was recovering from a liver and kidney transplant so he couldn’t go into the home because of the COVID risk to personally check on his older brother. Instead, a cousin rushed over with a pulse oximeter that showed James’ blood oxygen level was dangerously low.

At the time, Hilbert said his dad still seemed healthy, although he suffered from slight dementia. He was eating dinner when paramedics came to rush his son to Long Beach Memorial Medical Center.

“He asked, ‘Where you going with Jimmy? I said leave him alone Pop he don’t feel good,’” Hilbert recalled.

The next day, a cousin took Tom to get his dialysis treatment. When his blood pressure dropped dangerously low, he was taken to St. Mary Medical Center, where a COVID test came up positive. The family was shocked and scared.

“We didn’t think he was sick,” Hilbert said. “We knew my brother was in a bad way but not my dad.”

Both father and son were in their separate hospitals for about two weeks. James was in an induced coma with fluid in his lungs.

Hilbert said the most heartbreaking thing was not being able to see his father and brother in person, only over a video chat. Hilbert said his father would look away when the nurse held up the video screen.

“He had a little dementia so I think he didn’t understand why nobody was there with him,” Hilbert recalled. “He was thinking we probably don’t care about him. I kept telling him I miss him and that I love him. I know he heard me.”

Hilbert said his father’s vital signs had been getting better, and the hospital had even called to say he might be going home soon. But that evening, a nurse phoned him with the news—his father had slipped away.

Just four days later, the same devastating word would come about James, who died after his heart suddenly stopped.

Hilbert said the family has been touched by the outpouring of support from the many friends and Westside neighbors who had known Tom for decades. A GoFundMe page set up to help with expenses generated more than $7,000.

One of the many remembrances posted on the page summed up what he meant to those whose lives he touched. “From being your foreman on your plumbing jobs to picking up food from the food bank and dropping it off to those who needed it. You molded me as a kid to work hard and help others,” wrote Jeremiah Corona.

Pallbearers carry the casket of James Armijo into St. Lucy Catholic Church for a double funeral service including his father. Both died of COVID-19 in Long Beach. Monday, March 15, 2021. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

On a rainy Monday morning, more than two dozen friends and family members gathered for a memorial service at St. Lucy Catholic Church, where James once served as an altar boy and Tom had been an usher for years.

The son was in a silver casket. Perched nearby on the altar, a blue urn draped in an American flag contained the ashes of the father. Close in life, they were now tragically joined in death.

Many more friends had hoped to pay their respects, but the family wanted to keep the gathering small because of the pandemic.

At one point during the short service, a cousin asked the assemblage to stand if they, like him, were once “Tommy Workers.”

Throughout the small chapel, mourners rose from the pews in unison and smiled at each other—a moment of shared grief and gratitude.

The casket of James Armijo and the urn of Thomas Armijo for a double funeral service at St. Lucy Catholic Church. Both died of COVID-19 in Long Beach. Monday, March 15, 2021. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

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Kelly Puente is an award-winning general assignment and special projects reporter at the Long Beach Post. She has worked as a journalist in Long Beach since 2006, covering everything from education and crime to courts and breaking news. Kelly previously worked at the Long Beach Press-Telegram and the Orange County Register before joining the Post in 2018. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and administration at Cal State Long Beach. Reach her at [email protected].
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