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José Martín Aguilar lives in Fruitvale with his wife and two daughters. He worked at a kitchen serving four South Bay restaurants until March, when he lost his job of 10 years due to the COVID-19 shutdown. In his free time, he volunteers with Censo Maya, a community-led effort to support Oakland’s Mam Mayan community participate in the 2020 Census and access vital services during the COVID-19 crisis. His story was produced for The Oaklandside in collaboration with El Tímpano, a local Spanish-language reporting lab serving Oakland’s Latino immigrant communities.
This story is part of Amplify Oakland, our series of first-person stories shared by Oaklanders in their own words.
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Amplify Oakland is supported by a grant from Akonadi Foundation.
I was working before and so was my wife. We were happy. Things got complicated the moment the illness appeared.
I remember that Sunday. I went to see what was happening at the restaurant, and when I arrived, I only saw five people eating there. The waiters were just standing around with nothing to do. Things were quiet in the kitchen. Silence. I asked the manager, “What happened?” He said “Well, there is an illness that appeared and people are not coming to eat. We may have to close, we’re not sure.”
The boss lives in Fremont, and I went straight to his house. He said, “There’s no work. If you want, you can take a leave today and tomorrow and I will call you if things change.” I said okay. What’s the point of coming if there isn’t anything to do?
Since that day, I still have the work keys. He hasn’t called to tell me whether they’re going to open soon or not.
Later I watched the news and the government, the Governor of California, saying that we must remain at home. I stayed home about two weeks. And so did my wife. She used to work at a hotel, and she was told that there won’t be more work since there is a risk of contagion. So we both lost our jobs.
I have bills to pay. I was paying $1,400 for rent because we’re a family of four. I had been earning good money, didn’t have any problems paying rent. But when the illness appeared, well, things got complicated. Where am I going to get $1,400 every month? Add to that food, car insurance, other expenses. I heard on the news that you can’t be evicted but you will have to pay later regardless. And if I don’t pay one, two, three months, the debt will pile up.
For two weeks I was watching the money disappear quickly. I thought, what about the rest of the months? Another two months? How am I going to pay rent? If I don’t go out to work I could end up in the street, who knows. I told my family, “You guys stay home. I have to go out to find work to make a living even if I catch the illness. I have no other choice.”
I went to a job agency, and thank God I found a job. I didn’t even ask how much it paid or what it’s about. I was just glad that there was work.
It’s at a company near the coliseum. They make plastic things. I don’t know where they are used, to tell you the truth, but I’ve heard that they are for hospitals. They come out in small boxes, and then we put them in big boxes, five packages to a box.
It’s a risk to work there because there are many people who come to work, and they’re also risking their lives because this illness is dangerous, it has taken many lives. That’s the fear. So when I come home, my girls are used to the drill. They wait for me at the door and I put alcohol on my shoes, my hands, and take everything off, then I take a shower. After all that, I can hug them.
My main concern is paying rent. If the rent is paid every month, I’m set. Then all I have to worry about is the next month. Paying rent means having a place for my children, for my family.
After paying rent, I’m left with about $600. Thank God we got some other help. From the school, a CalFresh card with $365 in it, and the teachers also sent some cards with a hundred dollars, fifty dollars. We also received the stimulus check from the government, $1,200 for each person. That helped a little more. There are places giving out food as well. My wife went and she brought back some canned food, potatoes and corn. We make a meal out of that.
I know that this illness will not disappear from one day to the next. I think it will be around for a while. My hope is, and I pray to God, that a medication for the illness is found so that we can go to work or go look for work, or, as in my case, return to our former jobs. But if the illness continues, I’m going to keep fighting, just as I’m doing now, to move ahead.
As told to El Tímpano’s Madeleine Bair. Translated from Spanish by Jose Luis Caicedo.