Portrait of Marina Salas in Oakland
Marina Salas takes walks around Lake Merritt to help with her anxiety around finances. Credit: Amir Aziz

This reporting is a collaboration between The Oaklandside and Oakland’s Spanish-language reporting lab, El Tímpano.

Two or three times a week, Marina Salas gets dressed and leaves her apartment without eating breakfast. She walks toward downtown Oakland, what would’ve been her regular commute to work before the pandemic. But she doesn’t clock in to her job like she used to. 

Instead, she strolls around Lake Merritt for a few hours to hold off on her first meal of the day and keep her mind off the family’s mounting debt. Still, as she walks, she can’t help but look for “help wanted’ signs.

“Sometimes we have to eat just two times a day because there’s no food,” said Salas, 47, who shares a two-bedroom apartment with her husband and 14-year-old son, as well as her sister and her partner. “I try to eat at two in the afternoon and at eight, so that I don’t get too hungry.”

Salas is among thousands of Oakland immigrants coping with the financial distress of months of unemployment. With little economic relief available for undocumented workers, families like hers are just barely getting by—financially and emotionally. Many are skipping meals to keep their costs low, falling into thousands of dollars of debt, and burning through their savings to keep up with rent and bills.

Before the pandemic, Salas worked as a cashier at a local bakery, and her husband was a cook at the Old Oakland taquería, El Gusano. But the pandemic hammered the restaurant industry; Salas’ hours were drastically cut and El Gusano laid her husband off. He hoped to eventually get rehired, but the restaurant closed for good in December.

The debt is piling up. “Right now we owe three months of rent… that’s about $4,500,” said Salas. “Our savings are gone.” 

Salas and her husband are among the millions of leisure and hospitality sector employees across the country whose jobs have been cut or hours reduced in the past year. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center last August, roughly six in 10 Latinos reported that someone in their household lost their job or took a pay cut because of the pandemic. The cuts have been felt most acutely among Latina women. Meanwhile, at least 70% of Latinos surveyed by Pew last May said they did not have enough money in their emergency savings to cover three months of bills.

Salas is called in to work about three times a month. But without a steady income, the family has to rely on the help of her sister and her sister’s partner. 

“They’re the only ones who were able to keep their jobs,” said Salas. “Not many hours but that’s how we make enough to eat.” The pair work at a café and McDonald’s, and pay what they can to their landlord. Despite being months behind on rent, Salas said their landlord has been sympathetic.

“He sent us a letter at the start of the pandemic that said if we couldn’t pay, all we needed to do was say so.”

Landlords cannot legally evict families for missing rent payments due to the eviction moratoriums passed by the Oakland City Council and the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. The ordinances are set to last until 60 days after the local state of emergencies are lifted. Until then, all renters have a legal right to withhold rent during the pandemic, though they will still accrue back pay. 

Not all landlords, however, have been sympathetic.

Jessica Arias, 22, works at a gas station that has floundered since the start of the pandemic. With her hours reduced, she brings home just $300 every two weeks. It’s the only money coming in to support Arias, her 2-year-old daughter, and her partner, who hasn’t worked since suffering an injury six months ago. 

With neither of them earning income like before, the family has fallen behind on six months of rent, about $6,000. On top of that, she said the landlord has threatened them with an additional $50 late fee for each month they’re behind. 

“I’ve told him about the situation we’re in,” said Arias. 

Although late fees have been prohibited by Oakland’s eviction moratorium, Arias said her landlord hasn’t relented. 

“I’m paying little by little but going into debt,” said Arias. With a toddler at home, her focus has shifted to paying the PG&E bill to keep the lights on—instead of the mounting rent. 

Community relief efforts and social networks provide support

Help continues to be scarce for undocumented immigrants who don’t qualify for unemployment benefits and have been excluded from federal stimulus programs during the pandemic. 

Several local nonprofits have stepped in to fill the gap by partnering with the state, community foundations, and mutual aid networks to provide relief specifically for undocumented workers. Through Catholic Charities of the East Bay and Centro Legal de la Raza, the Salas’ family has received two direct cash payments of $500. 

More is needed, however, to respond to the economic crisis. That’s what César Cruz found when his Oakland-based organization, Homies Empowerment, raised $40,000 late last year to distribute to families experiencing hardship. 

“What we weren’t ready for is to receive 938 applications in Spanish,” said Cruz. “In total we had 1,633 families who applied.” 

After a community callout, Homies Empowerment doubled their available funds, but Cruz said it’s still not enough to provide meaningful aid to all applicants. They plan to distribute the money to 410 families with the greatest need.

“These are families who have been impacted by COVID,” said Cruz. “They don’t have any other resources.” 

Even in the face of a global pandemic, many undocumented immigrants are finding support by helping one another. For Maria Cordova, 43, financial relief has come in the form of new housing arrangements with people she knows.

When Cordova moved to Oakland two years ago, she found a job at a local cafe as a dishwasher and was eventually promoted to kitchen staff. But Cordova, who said she hopes to one day start her own food cart business selling french fries, was laid off last spring. 

Cordova, who lived in her own studio until she could no longer afford the rent, now cooks and cleans for a family in exchange for a room in Fruitvale. “Things were good. I lived alone. But now, everything is so hard for me,” she said. 

Cordova met her new housemates through a friend before the pandemic. When she lost her job, they agreed to let her live rent-free after she offered to assist the elderly members of the family. 

While she no longer has to worry about rent, Cordova is afraid their agreement could come to an end. She also worries about her own health. In May, the family members who left the house to work got COVID-19, and it didn’t take long to spread.

“Everyone in the house got sick,” said Cordova. 

Despite the challenges of the past year, Cordova is hopeful that an end to the pandemic is in sight. “I have faith and confidence in God that everything will get better once everyone gets the vaccine. And all of us without jobs will be able to work.”

How you can support Oakland immigrants in need

Below are some of the local non-profits that El Tímpano’s audience says has helped them through the pandemic, with links to support their work.

Mujeres Unidas y Activas: A political empowerment organization of Latina immigrant women, MUA has continued to provide services, assistance, and grassroots advocacy for its community throughout the pandemic.  

Street Level Health Project: This grassroots organization based in Fruitvale provides a variety of services, including food distribution and health navigation, for East Oakland’s day laborer community. 

Homies Empowerment: Between the organization’s Freedom Store and “It Takes a Barrio” fund, Homies Empowerment has supported thousands of East Oakland residents. It accepts donations through Flipcause.

Alameda County Community Food Bank: Where to find food is one of the most common questions El Tímpano’s audience has asked in the past year. The local community foodbank works with schools, churches, and a variety of organizations to distribute food throughout the community.  

Trybe: Based in Oakland’s San Antonio neighborhood, Trybe expanded in 2020 to respond to community needs, delivering and distributing food and other goods to thousands of Oakland residents. 

Centro Legal de la Raza: One of the nation’s leading immigrant legal aid organizations, Centro Legal has provided legal advocacy and distributed financial aid to Oakland residents in need. 

Héctor Alejandro Arzate is El Tímpano’s Health & Housing Reporting Fellow. He was raised in Richmond, California. He studied criminology and journalism at Humboldt State University, where he wrote for the school's bilingual newspaper and produced newscasts for the student radio station. His stories have appeared in the California Report Magazine at KQED, 1A by WAMU and NPR, and DCist in Washington D.C. When he’s not writing or producing, you can find him cooking, fly fishing, or working on his jump shot.