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With coronavirus testing more widely available in recent weeks, it’s become clear that Latino communities are being disproportionately impacted. Health officials and journalists have reported spikes in the number of new coronavirus cases among Latinos in California and elsewhere in the nation. In Alameda County, the trend is not new: the number of Latino cases here has been rising steadily for at least several months, ever since the county health department began publishing coronavirus data in April. By late June, Latinos had come to comprise over half of all known coronavirus cases in Alameda County. As of the date of this article, Latinos accounted for 3,555 confirmed cases, out of a total of 6,721. Experts have cited numerous possible reasons for why Latinos are more likely to become infected, including lack of health insurance, a higher likelihood of working essential jobs, and living in crowded housing.
Orlando Ruiz, 28, lives with his wife and two children, his two brothers, and his parents in East Oakland. An immigrant from Guatemala, Ruiz has been living in the U.S. for seven years. Until recently he was working for a local landscaping company. Below, Ruiz describes how he and his family have been affected economically and physically by the coronavirus, and he shares his thoughts on why Latinos in Oakland and other parts of the country are being disproportionately impacted. His story was produced for The Oaklandside in partnership with El Tímpano, a community-driven media project serving Latinos in East Oakland.
I remember the pandemic started around March 15, and on March 30 I got fired from my job—two crises I never imagined I’d be dealing with. My employer called and said, “You know what, you’re fired. There’s no work due to the situation we’re in right now.” I’d been working with the company for two years and seven months. It was upsetting and felt unjust that the company didn’t do anything more to help the workers, and just fired us in that manner.
Firstof all, being here in this country, nothing comes for free. You’ve always got bills and rent to pay. And when I heard about all of the businesses and jobs being shut down, I started to get really worried. Where would I find work? What am I going to do with my family? How are we going to pay for everything?
We don’t have additional income. My wife doesn’t work, and I’m the sole earner. The one thing that helped was that we live with my two brothers, and they both still had work, even though it was part-time. They told me to try not to worry too much because the stress could cause me to get sick. They said, “You know what, we’re going to help you out and see what we can do. Maybe we’ll be able to cover the rent.” After that, the pressure subsided a bit.
I felt even better when the government said it was going to give checks to residents. But unfortunately, the government later said the help wouldn’t be available to people in mixed households, where some people have social security numbers and others don’t. I have my social security number, and I also have a son who was born here. But my wife and daughter don’t have a social security number. We pay taxes jointly every year, and so we didn’t qualify for the assistance. It was a sad moment because I couldn’t understand how, in this country, I could live here and pay my taxes all these years, and the government won’t help us.
The governor of California is also providing support to [undocumented] Californians, but unfortunately, my calls haven’t gotten through. I tried calling probably 20 or more times because I was calling three or four times a day. Sometimes the phone would pick up and a machine would say that unfortunately, they were unable to take my call due to the number of other callers on hold.
While that was all going on, I heard that there were food banks doing giveaways. That’s helped us a lot, because they’ve been giving us food to get us through the week.
The school situation was also hard, because my daughter just loves going to school. When they closed, she asked us all morning what time we’d be taking her to school and I would tell her, “No honey, the schools are closed,” and she would get really sad. So it’s been tough for us all, living through this time of crisis.
Then we found ourselves in another crisis, when some of my family members became infected with the coronavirus.
First, one of my brothers told us he was experiencing body aches. We suggested that maybe he was just tired, but he didn’t think so. Two days passed, and the aches got worse and he began having trouble breathing. We took him to get tested for coronavirus, and we got the bad news that he tested positive. We were all worried. Then my father was affected, and later my wife. They both tested positive. Then my other brother, too.
We all live together. We rent a big house so that we can be together, and because the rent is so expensive, one person can’t pay it alone. As a family, we’ve always helped each other out so we can get ahead in this country.
My brother works as a janitor cleaning apartments, and he thinks he got sick from doing his job. He showed up to clean an apartment building one morning and was working there all day, and by the time he left he had a sore throat. We think that’s probably how he became infected.
Thank god, I haven’t fallen sick and I don’t have any symptoms. I’ve been fine but seeing my wife, my brother, and my father so sick has been really hard. My father spent two weeks in the hospital and his condition was serious because his oxygen levels got really low. My brother was also there for a week, and my wife was there for six days. Now we’re scared to leave the house and go outside because we don’t want to go through that again.
I think the reason we’ve all been impacted by this is the economy, and how it’s set up for Latinos. For people with a good salary, it’s easier to quarantine and stay at home when you hear that’s what you need to do. But for a lot of us in the Latino community, nothing in this country is given. We need to go out every day to find a way to put food on the table and get ahead. I believe that’s what happened to us. My brother had to go out and clean homes, not knowing what it was he was touching, and that’s likely why he got infected. It’s because we need the income. So I would say, maybe so many Latinos are getting this virus because we’re going out to look for work. Not because we want to, but because we need to.
As told to Madeleine Bair and translated from Spanish by Jacob Simas