It's a category of workers that didn't exist for most of us a year ago. In order to tell the stories of essential workers, you have to look more closely than the usual news reports.
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It’s a windy day in Chicago. The sun shines down on a large mural that sits at Carpenter and 18th Streets in Pilsen, a neighborhood on Chicago’s southwest side.
The mural is hard to miss and attracts everyone who passes because of its colorful homage spotlighting three of the community’s own. Pilsen is a community that has overcome hardship long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, a community whose hope is as essential as its workers.
An indigenous serape pattern serves as the colorful backsplash for Javier, a U.S. Postal worker, Rosalinda, a clerk at Los Jasmines, the corner store where the mural is located, and Juan, a butcher shop worker, all pictured in their work uniforms and masks. The pattern is intentional and pays respect to the culture and history each proudly carries.
Their piercing eyes embody the definition of strength--strength in spirit and strength in community. Sprawled across the top in white bold letters is “Pilsen,” the text bursting off of the colorful wall. “El Corazon de Chicago” is etched in black underneath the portraits, serving as a platform for recognition of their essential labor.
In the upper righthand corner, a short sentence painted in blue is both a dedication and a rallying cry during the pandemic: "Dedicado a los trabajadores esenciales de nuestra comunidad," Dedicated to the essential workers of our community. "Amor y respecto," Love and respect, September-2020.
A mural like this in Pilsen is not uncommon; the historic neighborhood is known for its culture and art. "La fortaleza," the fortitude of the community is apparent. Yet, it is uncommon to see workers like Javier, Rosalinda and Juan pictured, and even more uncommon to know the stories of three Latinos brought out of the shadows by a mural.
Rosalinda is a cashier at her brother’s corner store, Los Jasmines in Pilsen. She says the store is open every day of the week.
Rosalinda: "Todo los dias esta abierto de lunes a domingo de ocho a nueve de la noche."
And she works every day.
Rosalinda: "Todo los dias! (laughs) No todas los horas, pero todo los dias."
Eight a.m. to five p.m., Monday-Sunday.
Rosalinda: "Eso es mi dia, llegar, desinfectar, limpiar la tienda, empezar a ver que se necesita de la orden, de las cosas"
A normal day consists of cleaning and disinfecting the store in the morning, completing inventory orders and tending to customers.
Rosalinda: "Termino de trabajar, llegar a mi casa, hacer de comer, limpiar mi casa, atender a mi esposo, y parecer son las ocho o nueve de la noche, entonces ya si me queda tiempo ver una pelicula o hacer algo de actividades alla en mi casa y ya."
When she’s done at five p.m., she travels about 15 minutes to get home, cooks dinner for her and her husband, cleans her house and tends to things at home. And by that time, it’s eight or nine at night. If there’s time, maybe she watches a movie or goes to the gym.
Rosalinda: "Si me da tiempo a veces, como las ocho or nueve de la noche voy a la gimnasio, si me da tiempo, si no, no."
Business is slowed, she says, but Covid is only partly to blame.
Rosalinda:" No nos a afectado mucho de la question de que vengan a la tienda, pero la economia si, porque la gente ya no tiene dinero."
People are coming to the store, only fewer because they don’t have extra money to spend now.
Rosalinda: "Por ejemplo para nosotros es mas dificil. Un tiempo habia mas trabajo ahora es menos trabajo y…"
Businesses in Pilsen, like Los Jasmines, faced hardship even before the pandemic began. Among other challenges, they’ve had to adjust to the many changes gentrification has brought to their once predominately Latino neighborhood.
Rosalinda: "La gente... te voy a decir porque, le gente que vive en este barrio se movio, se cambio de este barrio porque a cido el incremento de rentas, de impuestos y se fueron a barrios que estan un poco mas baratos."
Many Latinos who used to live in this neighborhood, and for whom the store was geared, she says, moved because of an increase in housing prices, an increase in taxes.
Rosalinda: "Estaba para la comercio Latino que les gusta salir, comprar cocas y cosas, entonces se cabian y a nosotros nos afecta."
During the pandemic business initially increased since people in the area were avoiding shopping at large grocery stores.
Rosalinda: "Durante el pandemia si fue un poquito mas ocupado porque la gente no iba a supermercados grandes para evitar efermarse, entonces a nosotros un poquito nos ayudo, pero despues ya que restablecieron supuestamente las cosas, si afecta porque muchas personas se cabio."
But once everything started to open back up, business slowed again.
Rosalinda: "Entonces ya ahorita la mayoria de la gente que nosotros tenemos como clientes son Americanos… son Americanos y nosotros tenemos que cambiar nuestros productos porque ya la gente que viene son mas Americano."
Now, she says, the majority of their customers are “Americanos,” not Latino. So the store has had to change inventory to accommodate.
Javier, the U.S. postal worker, is first generation Mexican-American and grew up in Pilsen. He says neighborhood residents have been marginalized for decades.
Javier: "There’s definitely an obvious change. The prices in property and rent have gone way up. And it’s a ripple effect that’s affected small businesses and schools, also churches; most of the parishioners have moved out of the neighborhood."
Even with the cold weather and snow quickly approaching in Chicago, and the pandemic still lingering, essential workers face the elements and continue to show up because staying home is simply not an option.
Javier: "A lot of essential workers that are depicted on the mural next to me may or may not have legal status here in this country. Many of them are making minimum wage and are just trying to support their families and get through the day with a handicap, whether it be their status or their lack of pay. Some people were staying home making way more on unemployment than these people that were grinding day in and day out. And I’m not the person that makes the rules or policy, but that to me doesn’t seem fair."
Mateo Zapata and Pablo Serrano are the two artists of the mural. It took them one week, working 10-12 hour days, to paint by hand. On a windy day Zapata, too, was battling the elements in order to keep making progress on his next creation. He was quite proud to note that he paints all of his murals by hand.
Mateo Zapata: “Marginalized or live-in communities that don’t have resources and that aren’t safe… the same people that live in these communities are sustaining the economy on a daily basis during the pandemic. So like our community's workforce is essential, but the need for our safety and resources isn’t."
Despite this, community members like Juan, the 25-year-old butcher shop worker depicted in the mural, says he’s just grateful for the opportunity to live in this country because it’s given him a means to an end, supporting his family back home in Guatemala. On one of his breaks, he explains:
Juan: "Yo soy de Guatemala y llegue en este pais para echarle ganas, para salir adelante y no tengo muchos experiencia de de estas cosas. Porque yo simplemente vengo de un pueblo, donde estoy es un rancho chico y no tengo mucho experiencia, pero cuando llegué aquí…"
He left Guatemala as a teenager and followed his older brother to the United States to find work.
Juan: " … empeze a aprender las cosas y como se debe ser en las tiendas y todos y mas estos como paso ahorita y me inclurieron con este mural y es un experiencia para mi."
He says he feels emotional to be included in the mural because it’s the first time he’s ever been a part of something like this. He says he thinks it’s good for people to see.
Juan: "Para que vean la gente que podemos salir adelante todo y luchamos con esto todo la pandemia que paso."
With everything going on, he says, we can still keep moving forward, work hard and succeed.
Juan: " … no nos rendirmos pues si no seguimos trabajando, nada mas con las reglas que pusieron."
We’ve continued working, adopting the new regulations in place.
Juan: "Para salir adelante, y para ayudar a nuestra familia y hacer nuestros suenos, lo que queremos y todo."
Despite his hours having been cut at times during the pandemic, he works six days and clocks in a little more than 40 hours per week. Juan said he always tries to think positive and reminds himself to keep moving forward, for himself and his family.
Juan: "Pensar en lo positivo porque pensar en la negativo siempre se calle mas bajo uno."
Thinking negatively, he says, only makes you go lower.
Juan: "Pero siempre hay cosas que pasa, siempre difficil como la situacion de mi papa. Es una cosa que yo sentí muy deificil, mas de la larga distancia."
There are always hard things that you have to face, he explains. Like the situation with my father...that was really hard for me. It was even harder than what I face normally, being so far from them.
Juan’s parents are back in a small ranch town in Guatemala, one with no lights or major highways, where he grew up. His father is unable to work because he recently had his feet amputated. So Juan and his siblings send money home to support their parents.
Juan: Pero siempre hemos echarle mas ganas y en estas cosas nos queda la experiencia en como hacer las cosas en la vida.”
You always have to keep pushing forward and trying your very best, he says, because in those experiences you learn how to live life.
A new CMAP study shows a disproportionately high number of essential worker jobs in the Chicago area are held by people of color and those in lower-income neighborhoods. More than 54 percent of essential workers are people of color, compared with 44 percent of all workers in the region. But the numbers are likely higher since retail and grocery store workers like Rosalinda and Juan were not originally considered essential.
Austen Edwards is a senior policy analyst for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.
Edwards: "One of the really interesting things I find about the Covid pandemic is that the term 'essential worker' wasn’t really a thing last year. None of us have thought about workers as being essential or non-essential in quite that way before. Retail workers were not included as essential workers, but in the data that’s available that would also mean that grocery workers were not considered essential, but anyone who was going to the grocery stores for rice or beans or flour back in March and April will remember..."
Food and beverage stores in the Chicago area employ about 83,000 people, with supermarkets making up the bulk of that workforce. Rosalinda and Juan represent the stories of these workers who’ve often been overlooked in Chicago, yet whose spirits have always led them to keep going.
This unrelenting spirit and the support of family allowed Rosalinda to move through a bout with Covid.
Rosalinda: "Yo te voy a decir algo, cuando la pandemia empezo yo me infecte, luego luego… eso fue Abril."
She and her husband contracted the virus in April and had to stay home for over a month to recover.
Rosalinda: "No fue tan dificil para mi en question de efermerdad. Si tuvo un poco de gripa y tos muy poca pero me senti bien."
It wasn’t that hard for me when it came to dealing with it physically. I had cold-like symptoms, but I felt mostly fine.
Rosalinda: "Pero dejar de trabajar si me costo. Me costo mucho trabajo porque."
But work-wise, that did cost me a lot.
Rosalinda: "Estamos en una area que puede contaminar y contagiar a mas personas."
I’m around a lot of people at work, so the risk of spreading it is greater for me.
Rosalinda: "Entonces me tuve que quedar en mi casa por mas de un mes. Mas de un mes por mi seguirdad y por la seguridad de los demas, mas por los demas, verdad."
She stayed home to ensure her safety and the safety of everyone around her, but more for the safety of others, she says.
She was fortunate enough to have help from her older brother to cover her rent since both she and her husband were out of work. But it was tough, she says. Their household didn’t qualify to receive the federal stimulus payment or any government assistance because her husband is still in the process of becoming a U.S. resident.
Rosalinda: "Mi hermano de la tienda me ayuda. Entonces por ejemplo, el me ayudo, el pago por un mes, el me ayudo pagar la mitad de lo que tenia que hacer yo el pago, y mi hermano me ayudo con a lo demas."
She tried to apply for alternative assistance programs to see if they would help her, but they didn’t. They told her assistance was based on a lottery system.
Rosalinda: "Pero yo hizo una solicitud a ver si me ayudaba y no, no me ayudaron."
Additionally, Roslinda and her husband had to pay $100 each to get tested for Covid-19. At the time, there were no free testing sites in the neighborhood.
Rosalinda: "Tenemos una clinica comunicaria y la clinica te dice quedate en su casa, no vengas, no hagas nada. Lo unico lo que dicen es vean y ser una prueba de Covid y ya, si sales positiva quedate en su casa."
After they both tested positive, the local community clinic told her and her husband not to leave their house except for an absolute emergency.
Rosalinda: "No salgas, no vengas, no vayas a un hospital si no lo necesitas."
Don’t come to the clinic, don’t go to the hospital, don’t go to the store, stay home, they told her. And fortunately, she and her husband both recovered and never had to go to the hospital.
Meanwhile, neither Javier or Juan have contracted COVID, nor their families. But they all remain fearful that they could.
Juan: "A veces se siente miedo por eso."
Juan is undocumented and doesn’t have health insurance. At times, he says, he feels afraid because of that.
Javier: "I'm concerned that I might catch the virus and be asymptomatic and bring something home to my wife or pass it along to my parents or my kids, only to find out when it’s too late."
Rosalinda, on the other hand, says she’s scared to catch it again. And if she does, she fears she may not recover as easily as she did the first time.
Rosalinda: "Ahora si me da un poco de miedo otra vez porque me digo si me vuelve pasar, si ya no me va igual o no se verdad, no se, pero si es difícil."
She says she’s concerned, not necessarily with being in contact with people, so much as handling money on a daily basis that so many others have come in contact with.
Rosalinda: "Nosotros estamos en contacto con dinero. No con las personas, con el dinero que cada vez lo usamas hay que lavar los manos, hay que usar desinfectaria y todo… pero si tenemos miedo."
Neither Rosalinda nor her husband are sure of where they contracted the virus. For so many essential workers, the risk of contracting the virus is something they can’t afford to avoid, even as the pandemic puts more of a work demand on some than ever before.
Javier: "I’ve been a carrier for 23 years, and I’ve never seen it as busy during the holidays, which is our peak season, than I’ve seen it during this pandemic."
Edwards from CMAP says the work that keeps our communities running comes in many shapes and shades, and while workforce data can give us a tally of people in different occupations, it can’t tell us who matters, or who should matter, in the midst of a crisis.
Austen Edwards: "None of us have thought about workers as being essential or non essential in quite that way before. And now I hope there’s a new appreciation, not just in government, not just in nonprofits, but really across society for the vital role that these people play in making sure that our communities continue to function. And what we owe them in terms of supporting opportunities for a healthy, successful, productive life...should help to inform many of the policies and investments that we want to make going forward."
For Javier, Rosalinda and Juan, life has had to go forward, even in the midst of crises. But for them, there’s hope to be found in that. And hope, it seems, especially during these times, has become the most essential of all.
Javier: "We’re all spokes on a wheel...we’re their connection to the world."
Juan: "No podemos rendirnos con eso, si no hacer mas fuerte, mas positiva la mente y todo."
We can’t get preoccupied with all of this, Juan says. We have to stay strong and stay positive in our minds, work hard and keep moving forward.
And that is something the artists who painted them never wanted anyone to forget.
Mateo Zapata: “I think that younger people growing up need to know that their community was made up of essential workers."
Link to the CMAP study, for easy access: https://www.cmap.illinois.gov/updates/all/-/asset_publisher/UIMfSLnFfMB6/content/metropolitan-chicago-s-essential-workers-disproportionately-low-income-people-of-color#Many_essential_jobs_are_disproportionately_held_by_people_of_color_2019