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Emilia Zarate, 46, has lived in Oakland for 16 years, where she is raising two young boys, ages 6 and 7. Like thousands of other Oaklanders, she lost her job at the start of the pandemic, resulting in financial upheaval that has affected Latinas more than any other group. But despite the income loss and what it has meant for her and her family, Zarate, a native of Oaxaca, Mexico, has found support from her community and much to be grateful for during the pandemic year.
Her story was produced for The Oaklandside by El Tímpano, a Spanish-language reporting lab serving Oakland’s Latino and Mayan immigrant communities.
I worked at a laundromat that washes linens for airlines. There were a lot of us, 150 or so. When I first started, I folded sheets. Then I learned to seal them in plastic bags, and then fold napkins. There’s a huge iron, and the dried napkins come out, and you have to fold them depending on the airline; each one has its own fold.
It’s really tiring work. I’ve had various jobs here, but that was one of the jobs that is the most back-breaking and the worst paid. They demand a lot of you. But thank God, I had work, and most importantly, when I needed to ask for scheduling changes, like when my kids started kindergarten, I never had a problem. So I put up with it for a long time.
In January of 2020 I had a lot of symptoms of the coronavirus, but they had not yet declared it. I had a fever, a headache, pain in my bones. I couldn’t even walk. For about 15, 20 days I think it was, I was bad. I had to quit work. And then when I tried to return, that’s when they sent the kids home from school, and I couldn’t. I stayed home, and up until this day, that’s where I remain. My kids are still taking classes online.
For about four months starting last January, I didn’t have any income. The father of my children has always supported me and the kids financially, and it was really tough because he went into debt helping me out. For two months he paid my rent and he paid for food. At that time I hadn’t yet learned about the food distributions. He helped bring food for the kids—fruit, milk, everything. Then he also lost his job and for about three or four months he was out of work.
I had to move out of where I was living and move in with him, his sister, and her family. It’s been a huge help. For example, before, I wasn’t able to go to the food distribution because where I lived was a bit out of the way. Now, I can leave my kids with their cousins who are a bit older, and walk over to where they give away food on 76th Avenue. I also have a neighbor here who out of nowhere started bringing me a box of food. I tell you, there have been many blessings. Despite losing work, I thank God that I have never missed a plate of food.
Financial help, I need that too. Unfortunately, I’ve tried to apply for help to pay rent and such, but I haven’t been able to because they ask for your social security number, and I don’t have one. They ask for supporting documents and I also don’t have that because I only sublease a room. I would like the help, but for those reasons I’m not eligible. I’ve only been able to get financial help from Centro Legal de la Raza, which gave me $500.
Now I earn money taking care of a baby. I have to scrape together funds to pay the bills, the rent. I have a kid in Mexico too. So it’s been hard. This pandemic has affected pretty much the whole economy. Still, I say to myself, keep going. I hardly spend any money on food, just a little meat or something like that. But the fruit, vegetables, that has all been a blessing in this country, because there are places that give away food.
The nice thing that has come from the pandemic has been spending time with my family, because when I was working, it was just pure running around. Rushing to drop them off at school, then going to work. You come back tired, and then you might raise your voice to your kids because of the stress you bring home, because you had a bad day.
In contrast, now at least I can help with their homework, put them in front of their online classes, play with them a little. Sometimes I have them make tortillas with me to entertain them for a bit, or I take them outside to play. We enjoy having a popsicle in the yard, or eating a piece of fruit together. I’ve learned to be a little more patient with them, and to care for them more. It’s something very special, something that I wasn’t able to do before.
The blessing for me is that the father of my kids never left me. Even when I worked at the laundromat during the day, he took a job at night so he could take care of the kids. I would take them to school, and he would pick them up. He’s the one who has put in my mind the idea, “live in the moment.” Don’t worry about tomorrow. Enjoy your day today. Today we eat. Tomorrow, only God knows.
As told to El Tímpano’s Daniel Marquez and Madeleine Bair. Translated from Spanish by Madeleine Bair and José Luis Caicedo.