We Work the Hardest and Suffer the Most

The pandemic has made my immigrant family more vulnerable to eviction and financial stress.

by Edwin Mendez

Living in a worldwide pandemic is not easy for anybody. For me, one of the harshest truths I’ve learned during this time is how our economic system underserves some communities, revealing unfair treatment toward those most in need.

In recent months, I have gained a better understanding of how society attends to people of different classes, especially immigrants in the U.S. who come from a low-income household. It seems particularly unfair as these are some of the hardest-working people in the city.

The pandemic caused companies, stores, and shops to close down, and left many immigrants without jobs, particularly in my neighborhood of Borough Park. I am the son of two such immigrants.

Twenty years ago, my parents came to the U.S. from the city of Atlixco, Puebla, in Mexico. My mother wanted to explore American culture, its beautiful cities, and make advances in her life. She wanted to provide a place where her kids could grow up safely, with more opportunities to prosper. My father had a similar idea, and he was motivated to give back to his family in Mexico.

Yet the challenges my parents faced—language barrier, lack of opportunities, lack of public assistance—kept them from the success they had in mind.

I just graduated high school. But I am beginning to wonder what hope is there for me as I, a U.S. citizen, but still the son of immigrants, enter the real world?

An Immigrant’s Job Loss

I’ve understood since the age of 12 that there are limits to what an immigrant has access to.

Back then, my mother cleaned houses. I recall asking her once why she couldn’t work any other place rather than as house cleaner, and she replied with, “porque no tengo papeles,” meaning she is undocumented. She told me how there are hardly any opportunities to find a job that doesn’t require you to be a citizen or have a special set of skills.

My mother’s current job at a fish market, about an hour’s commute by train, was taken away as the pandemic increased in severity. Her job was not exciting: She rinsed fish to put them out on display with a price tag.

In April, I asked her if I could get a job since she couldn’t go to hers, but she said no.

“I don’t want to risk you catching the virus and bringing it home to your brothers,” she said.

I felt disappointed. I was being prevented from helping my family and saving up for college, but I hadn’t realized the risk of spreading the virus to the rest of my family. I later understood she was trying to protect us.

Despite not being able to work, my mother’s first priority remained protecting her family. That was one part of her American Dream she could still have control over. Family.

A Home Filled With Worries

We were pretty stable until our oven and fridge spontaneously stopped working after the first couple of weeks of the pandemic. The oven wasn’t a problem since we didn’t use it much, but I can’t say the same for the fridge. In order to keep our food fresh, we were forced to store meats, milk, and yogurt in a big pot filled with ice that we bought daily.

Another hurdle was that after the first couple of weeks staying at home, there was still no news of when people could go back to work, which took a toll on my family. At the end of April, my mother, with a tone of surrender, said, “I don’t have enough money for rent and I don’t know what I’m going to do. Bills keep coming and I don’t have any money.”

I was aggravated that she didn’t let me help. I imagined being kicked out of our house, with a disease all around us, left with nothing but suffering. I hated everything. Why did our oven stop working? Why did our fridge stop working? Why did these essentials have to stop working at a time like this!?

To make matters more frustrating, my family became aware of the government’s stimulus check program. I learned about it through social media, yet it didn’t mean that every immigrant family would receive one.

I couldn’t understand why my hard-working mother couldn’t get a stimulus check. There was never an explanation in mail or on social media that I could find as to why some immigrants couldn’t receive assistance, but I felt like it would obviously be for the same unfair reason: She was ineligible as an undocumented immigrant. Such regulations made it seem as if these immigrants didn’t exist, or were not even people. In reality, immigrants contribute to our society in many ways: through music, art, economics, and in building in our neighborhoods.

It wasn’t fair for her to be treated like this, and it felt that the system was betraying my community. It felt as if the economy just drove past some immigrants, like a hitchhiker on the road. To save money, we got daily food donations from the public school about five blocks from our house. We’d buy the cheapest foods such as spaghetti and bread, and try not to use much electricity.

My father, who lives separately from us, tried to help us out, but he could only do so much after he also lost his job. Bringing us groceries once every two weeks was the best he could do. I worried for his safety too.

Like Never Before

Around the end of April, I became consumed by the fear of being evicted.

Luckily, the landowner was able to understand our situation since so many families were struggling. But my family is still aware we have to pay the rent that is overdue, and when the state reported some workers could return to jobs, my mother quickly went back to work without hesitation. She worked more than ever before, not only in the fish market, but cleaning houses on her day off, being paid under the table.

I feared for her safety, as she was out long hours in a pandemic with a virus that could be anywhere. With coworkers surrounding her at the market, I thought maybe her mask and gloves weren’t enough to protect her. I feared she could bring COVID-19 home at any night to her family, including my six-year old brother.

I watched nightly as she arrived home from a long day of work with a hungry stomach, and she would go straight to the kitchen and eat the best she could with what we had. It wouldn’t take long to know she was stressed; she said she only wanted to shower and get a good night’s sleep, as she would have to repeat the same cycle the next day.

Seeing my mother working herself over the limit in this environment hurt me, since she had no support and had barely any time to spend with her family. This ongoing pain of not being able to help was one of the hardest things I’ve experienced.

In the beginning of July, my mom said to me and my brothers, “I can’t stand living here anymore. Paying so much rent every month is not something we had to do back in Mexico. Here, I can only make enough to pay rent and afford groceries. I can’t even afford to buy you guys new clothes.” I felt helpless to her situation.

A Breath of Life

When the severity of the pandemic decreased a little, I was able to go out and take a walk through Sunset Park. Seeing the green leaves hanging on trees, the light blue sky, and feeling a breeze that calmed me down, made me feel better.

But as I kept walking, I noticed that many immigrants were still left with no job opportunities, or had to create their own: Setting up stands selling ice cream, cotton candy, or Mexican foods and candies. The sight of the blue and pink cotton candy would leave my mouth watering, and then I’d steadily see more carts with more varieties of snacks, including my favorite chips: Fritos.

Seeing the men and women behind these stands made me realize all of these immigrants, like my mom, have their own struggles. But it also gave me the inspiration I needed during these tough times—to work just as hard as they do, whether it’s helping my family’s stability once I can get a job, or to succeed in college. Scorching temperatures or a pandemic won’t keep their resilience down—or mine.

The Unseen Reality

In the end, the economy leaves some immigrants with no choice but to work even harder than before in the pandemic, with barely any benefits or help to cover growing costs at home. Every day, at home and in my neighborhood, I see immigrants fighting to survive.

It leaves me somewhat guilty for the privilege I have of being a citizen. I get public assistance, educational opportunities, and health insurance, which only makes me want to take advantage of it and work hard for myself and my family. But I know those who can only wish to have the benefits a citizen gets, work just as hard for their families.

Attending college and studying biology would represent the success I want for myself and my family. So I am doing my best to make that happen. I have met with Options, a nonprofit that helps kids apply for college and scholarships. I also still talk with my counselors from school, who will help me apply for New York State’s TAP program and in filling out a FAFSA, to help with tuition.

Graduating from college would mean I have conquered the troubles an immigrant faces, and it would fulfill my mother’s plan to have her children prosper. Making my mom proud of me and herself for fighting hard, even with the lack of support, would be an indescribable moment of accomplishment for us.

At the end of the day, unless you’re Native American, we’re all immigrants. I hope that one day, society and our system can understand that all immigrants are part of this country too, trying to thrive and contribute as any citizen would.

Such regulations made it seem as if these immigrants didn't exist, or were not even people.
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