I call my mother every afternoon to check in on her. She lives in a three-story Section 8 building in East New York, Brooklyn, in the apartment my siblings and I grew up in. Three of her neighbors died from Covid-19 in the last two weeks, and more than half of the families in her 12-unit building are sick. Through the walls she could hear the wails of the family who lost a loved one to the virus next door: “Don’t go! Please don’t leave us!” Another neighbor on the second floor, a middle-aged Ecuadorean man who lived with his elderly mother, died the day before Easter. The worst part, she said, is not being able to pay her respects in person, to say goodbye to the neighbors that over the years have become her family. I feel my stomach turn with guilt.
As a professor of English, I am among the New Yorkers who are able to work from home. But I am the exception in my family. My mother cleans apartments in Manhattan for a living. Her clients have all canceled, but she isn’t getting paid time off or a severance package. She is draining all of her savings, money she had hoped to put toward her first house, to pay rent and utilities.
She worries about my uncle, who was diagnosed with Covid-19 and has been on a ventilator at Wyckoff Heights Medical Center in Brooklyn for 17 days; she worries about her church friends, many of whom have tested positive for the virus; she worries about our family in the Dominican Republic, some of whom are also infected. Most of all, she worries about my younger brother, who works at a small family-owned grocery store in Harlem, restocking shelves, managing the deli counter and preparing sandwiches for customers.
My younger brother commutes to work every day from East New York, where he lives in a cramped two-bedroom apartment with his 3-year-old son, pregnant wife and in-laws. He and his co-workers wear masks and gloves to protect themselves and the customers. Still, he fears he could get sick or, worse, bring the virus home to his family. “People at my job are getting sick; they know what symptoms to look for — a fever and a cough — so they take time off,” he told me. Many of them are undocumented and won’t risk going to the doctor. They are afraid of being deported.
On March 18, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that they would temporarily halt deportation enforcement across the country, except for efforts to deport foreign nationals who have committed crimes or who pose a threat to public safety. But that same day, I.C.E. continued to make arrests in some of the regions hardest hit by the virus, including California and New York.
There are over two million Latinx people in New York City, many of them members of immigrant families like mine, who work in businesses considered “essential.” Grocery store workers, housekeepers, delivery workers, immigrant owners of small businesses, cabdrivers and undocumented workers worry not only about their immigration status but also a basic income to survive. For them, social distancing is a luxury they simply can’t afford.
Some 30 percent of Americans have jobs that allow them to work from home. This number shrinks dramatically for black and Latinx people, and, especially, immigrants. Among the U.S. work force, just 16 percent of Latinx workers and 18 percent of black Americans can work from home, while roughly 30 percent of whites and 37 percent of Asian-Americans can.
The telework gap is one way the pandemic underscores wealth and educational disparities in this country. My brother and thousands of other essential workers risk their well-being working in places where they regularly meet hundreds of potential carriers of the coronavirus. They face unprecedented legal, health and financial risks that will linger far longer than this pandemic.
I reflect on the socioeconomic divide within my own family. Immigrants like my brother and mother have no choice but to go to work and risk getting sick, or stay home without pay. To escape the clamor of bad news, my mother reads the Bible and plays her guitar. She was cleaning the hallways in the building, until I begged her to stop for her safety. But when we spoke last, she confessed that she’s been struggling to keep her spirits up. I can only say, Perdóname, mami. I wish there were more I could do.
Ayendy Bonifacio (@ayendybonifacio), an assistant professor of U.S. ethnic literary studies at the University of Toledo, is the author of the forthcoming book “To the River, We Are Migrants.”
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