Pandemic Upends Latino Lives
By Jennifer Martinez
El que no nada se ahoga. He who does not swim drowns.
Growing up in a traditional immigrant household, this six-word declaration proved fundamental. My parents, both Salvadoran natives, imparted its wisdom on their children in response to misfortune — at times as a warning and at others as encouragement. It’s a lesson they learned from years of working long hours at one blue collared job or another, scraping together enough money to renew heftily priced work visas and keep the lights on, and finding a way to remain afloat as immigrants in the U.S.
Today, as I watch the Latino community face disproportionate amounts of loss amid COVID-19, I question the soundness of their life-long philosophy.
On April 3, my family became one of 61% of Latino households facing lay-offs or wage cuts amid a global pandemic. Two weeks of anxious phone calls with my mother preceded news of my father’s unemployment: “How are you? Are you staying home? Is everything okay?”— until finally, for all their effort and hard work, any semblance of financial stability dissipated.
I helped my father file for unemployment from the confines of my college apartment, 200 miles away. The process, which we began on a Monday afternoon, lasted several days. Heavy traffic to the Texas Workforce Commission website meant registration times were divvied up by zip code. We were limited to an 8 a.m.-12 p.m. window on Thursday mornings, but after a full day of being redirected upon submission, our application finally went through at 4 a.m. Friday. By Monday, my mother’s employer cut her weekly hours by a third.
This is not, by any means, our first experience with financial hardship.
I have watched my parents enter survival mode what seems like dozens of times. Most memorably, the recession of 2008 found my mom working a restaurant kitchen staff gig by day and a factory job by night. My dad, a self-employed mechanic at the time, milked funds from scarce work commissions.
In short, we are well-versed in making ends meet, but the conditions of this virus are unprecedented. We were not prepared.
Since mid-March, fortunate Americans have experienced this public health crisis from the comfort of their homes, performing remote work in place of exposure. But COVID-19 spells out a different fate for minority communities.
For those of lower socioeconomic status and immigrants, the Latino experience is defined by barriers to financial and medical resources. Federal relief bills, such as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES, exclude 20% of U.S. Latinos due to their citizenship status. Another 8 million Latinos grapple with the reality of working service industry jobs — the bulk of risky essential work — with minimal access to paid sick leave or medical insurance. Those who do qualify for government aid navigate overwhelmed websites and call lines and, in the most disheartening cases, receiving assistance plays out in the form of lotteries, forcing low-income individuals to compete among themselves to keep a roof over their heads.
I have watched my community buckle at the knees day after day. The numbers continue to roll in: Latinos make up 51% of reported cases in Austin, where I currently live, and 24% in Dallas, where my parents live, despite making up smaller percentages of their respective populations.
This trend extends across the country as Latinos are forced to choose between working at the frontlines of this pandemic and losing their livelihood.
Alejandro Coronado, a Dallas native and furloughed retail worker, is familiar with this dilemma. When we spoke a week ago, Coronado had just received testing for COVID-19. The 22-year-old was working odd jobs to support his mother, who is undocumented and unemployed, and younger brother when symptoms emerged. He was aware of the risk but had no choice; for the last month, his family had lived with limited income as they waited for his unemployment check to arrive. Coronado remained calm and collected, explaining he felt lucky just to have a means of helping his family keep food on the table.
This gratitude is a cultural affinity among Latino immigrants. When I complain to my mother about the minimal safety precautions afforded to her and 100 other employees at a Dallas packaging plant (little more than a bleach solution to clean workspaces), her response is always some variation of, “Well, at least I still have a job.”
For $13 an hour, my mother joins the ranks of Latinos up to 20 times as likely to contract the virus.
Despite these daunting figures, local governments have chosen to soften stay-at-home orders. On May 1, Texas retail stores, malls and restaurants reopened under instruction of Gov. Greg Abbot. I watched in horror as images of black and brown service workers in gloves and masks flooded my social media feeds.
My indignance to public disregard for Texas’ rising death toll called to memory a quote by author and activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore. In a conversation examining incarceration as COVID-19 ravages prisons, Wilson remarked, “Beware of the notion that citing vulnerability as statistics can somehow persuade people.” That is to say, our perils have always existed. They have been dished out in news articles and academic journals for years.
Yet systemic inequalities persist.
In truth, citizens protesting stay-at-home orders — some demanding their right to haircuts — often share limited contact with communities of color disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Segregation by race and socioeconomic status lingers across the country, and because of this, the server delivering plates of food inches away from guests all day will never have a name or story to his privileged counterparts.
So, the story of Latinos during COVID-19 becomes the story of a community rendered simultaneously essential and disposable.
My family and I remain uncertain about how the coming months will unfold. A few days ago, I joked to my mother about a workers’ revolution. She laughed, then stopped abruptly. With a gleam of wonder in her eyes, she asked if I was serious. This is where my hope for our community lies. More than anything, I want Latinos like my mother to realize that when you swim like hell and still manage to drown, it is time to demand more from your country.