Home Politics ‘Even In a Pandemic, We’re Still a Minority’

‘Even In a Pandemic, We’re Still a Minority’

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(Illustration by Krystal Quiles)

The borders of our world not only cut across international boundaries; they also increasingly stretch deeply into the interior of nations—into our homes, cities, communities, courts, and everyday interactions. Citizenship status, visa status, vulnerability to deportation—these are just a few of the dividing lines increasingly separating our country into different communities with starkly different options for how or if its members become full participants in our national experiment.
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As immigrants in the United States, both documented and not, are increasingly under attack—stripped of their status, arrested, and deported—it’s critical that their stories are heard across these borders. Migrant Voices is an oral testimony project from The Nation exploring, and listening to, a variety of immigrant voices: from recent arrivals to asylum seekers making their case in the courts, from the undocumented keeping under the radar to the DACAmented on the front lines—people from all over the world who have fled or left their homes and are looking to find, or keep, their place in America.

This is the tenth installment of this series—follow the series here.

As the coronavirus began its savage tear through the country this spring, it quickly became clear that some populations were being hit harder than others. Predominantly Black, brown, undocumented, and low-income communities suffered, and continue to suffer, worse than more affluent and whiter communities. In New York City, to cite one poignant example, the East Elmhurst neighborhood in Queens got rocked by coronavirus cases and deaths, while Park Slope, Brooklyn, just a few miles away, remained relatively unscathed. Because of the wealthy classes’ ability to work from home (or take off time from work), socially distance, avoid public transportation, and access better medical care, income and vulnerability to coronavirus mark a prejudicial X on a graph. Each death brings its own pain, loss, and tragedy, but it’s important to underline that the coronavirus, or at least our response to it, does discriminate.

Race is an even more conclusive factor than income. The state of Wisconsin, as The Washington Post reports, is only 6 percent Black, but Black people account for nearly half of its Covid-19 deaths. In Maine, Black people—many of them immigrants—make up only 2 percent of its population, though they represent nearly a quarter of its coronavirus cases. In March, along with Heather Gies, I reported for The Nation on the dire struggles undocumented communities were already facing with the coronavirus in New York City: out of work and largely deprived of state or federal assistance, people faced eviction, hunger, arrest, deportation, sickness, and death. The disturbing trend has repeated itself throughout the country as the death toll has steadily mounted.

Growing up in Honduras, Gabriel (whose name we have changed to protect his identity) suffered years of sexual abuse, hunger, and neglect. Finally, in 2013, at 15 years old, he followed his mother and fled north—one of the tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors to cross the border in hopes of finding humanitarian protection in the past decade. Since then, Gabriel has adjusted to his new home remarkably fast: learning English, settling into the Bay Area, and finding work, community, friends, gaining asylum protection, and soaring through three years of higher education at the University of California, Berkeley. But challenges and discrimination still dog the edges of his life, and they have been exacerbated by the pandemic. While classes were still given on campus, Gabriel commuted from a poor neighborhood in San Francisco across the bay to Berkeley. When classes went online, he struggled with a poor Internet connection and finding a quiet spot in his apartment; he shared the space with 13 others in his family. He also had to keep working, until racism and homophobia at his job forced him to quit.

In late June, Gabriel felt a minor headache spread, and then start throbbing. After the pain was followed by a wave of feverish chills, he dragged himself to a San Francisco emergency room. The next day, he tested positive for the Covid-19 and was sent into isolation in a nearby hotel, where overflow patients were being treated. At San Francisco’s General Hospital, over 80 percent of the first coronavirus patients were Latino. He was kept in isolation for eight days. By then his symptoms had subsided, and, without receiving another test, he was released. “They say there’s no point testing you because you have antibodies, but that’s not true,” Gabriel told me. By the second week of July, 10 of the 14 people who had been living in his apartment had tested positive. (The four others had moved out.) Gabriel himself went for another test, and, again, it was positive, though he’s asymptomatic. The family quarantined themselves for two weeks, but they are behind on their rent, did not qualify for government subsidies, and are struggling to put food on the table. As some of them are undocumented, they can’t access unemployment assistance. California’s eviction moratorium expires on August 1, and the family is worried.

Gabriel, 21 Years Old

I’m from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, from a very dangerous neighborhood called Villa Franca. The people there are very poor. There are a lot of maras [MS-13 gang members], many negative things happening with the government, and a lot of ignorance in the community.

I was born in the devastation of a hurricane in 1998, during Hurricane Mitch. The country was torn apart, and the hospitals were in terrible condition. My mother was sixteen when she became pregnant with me. She only reached the third grade before she stopped her studies. My father, who was also sixteen, had wanted to join the armed forces of Honduras. But when my mother told him she was pregnant, he wasn’t able to fulfill his dream.

My mother took care of me for a long time. Things were going well. Then my mom started working. My grandmother on my mother’s side took care of me. She fed me and gave me everything, because my mother couldn’t afford all those expenses. Then Grandma got sick, but we don’t know from what. We didn’t have money for the medicine, so she died in 2001, when I was 3. I remember seeing her in the coffin.

My aunt came to live with us. Everything was good for some time. Then problems began to arise between my mom and my dad. I was about 4 years old. My mother was working hard at street fairs, selling corn, tamales, and fritters. I helped her peel corn, clean the husks, steam and fry up tamales. My father was always drunk: lying down, drinking beer, and passing out. There was a lot of yelling at the house. My mom would cry and my dad would beat her in front of us—and beat me up as well. I felt awful because there was nothing I could do. I felt hate inside of me because he was hitting the person who gave me life.

I had two younger sisters, one born in 2000 and the other in 2004. I would take care of them when my mom went to work and my dad went out drinking. I looked after them all day, took them to school, and went to school myself. I had to wash clothes and cook. I did everything.

We had our own home, with a kitchen, living room, two bedrooms, and parking. In 2005, other people began to live with us. My parents rented out some rooms because they needed the money. One of the bedrooms was for two of my cousins, two sisters, another girl, an older guy, and me. There were seven of us in one room. Another room was for my aunt, her husband, and her son. My cousins were all older, over 18.

I was just a boy of 7. My cousins raped me for a long a time—for a year. They raped me at the river, where they collected water, and in my own home. Some of the cousins were brothers. One had a wife and his own children, yet he raped me.

In separate incidents, my cousins would force me to do things in their house. They’d have me touch their private parts. I was made to do things I didn’t want to do. I was a child and I didn’t know what was happening. I feared for my sisters because they were younger than me. Something bad could happen to them. They were little, 1 and 4 years old.

I used to be on friendly terms with my neighbor’s mom and I would talk with her. One day I went over to their house. My neighbor’s son told me to come inside, grabbed me by the neck, and began kissing me. He started to undress. Another time one of my mom’s cousins grabbed me while I was playing in the street. I had walked by an old, abandoned house, and he closed the door and took me by force. I started to bleed. I was just little. He then moved in with us. He lived next to my room. And every day he’d come and do the same thing, day after day. He was living in my house so he had more access.

Once, when the power went out, I took my sisters to my grandmother’s house because I was afraid. The wife of one of the cousins who was raping me was at my house. She asked me if I wanted to stay in their room. I stayed there with the wife, his two stepchildren, and him. He slept with his two stepchildren and his wife. The wife left at four in the morning and I kept sleeping because the power was out. When I woke up in the morning, he was lying down next to the boys completely naked. No boxers, no shirt, no pants. He took me by force and laid me down next to him and the boys. He did dirty things to me for almost the entire day. Then I left to go get my sisters and make them some food. I did all the daily chores and these things continued to happen—the same thing, day after day, for a year. Was this normal?

I didn’t know how to tell my family. I didn’t know how to act. You know how if your dad hits your mom, he might hit you too? He’d say that I was offering myself, so I was afraid to speak out. I never said a word.

At the six-month mark of all of this, my mom decided for the first time to go to the United States. She left without giving us anything but money for lunch. One morning she said, “I’m heading to work.” I said okay. I was taking care of my sisters, we went out to the street to play, I took them to my paternal grandmother’s. Everything was fine. It was five and then six in the evening and my mom didn’t show up. People came by and asked for my mom, and, crying, I told them I didn’t know where she was. Then my aunt came by and told me my mother had gone to the United States. I started to cry. I didn’t know what to do. I was only 7 years old.

My dad showed up much later that night. He began to collect all my mom’s things and then he left to sell them. My sisters and I were left practically on the street. We went to go live with my aunt. My dad then took us from there to my grandmother’s house. When I was living there, the bad cousins would chase me as I headed to school, but they usually couldn’t catch me. Sometimes they did catch me and did the same unspeakable things.

During this period, I discovered my mother had lied to us. She had not actually left the country. One night I was taken to my aunt’s house because my father’s relative had died. My mother showed up. I asked her why she was there since supposedly she’d already left Honduras. She said, “The coyote didn’t take me yet, I’m waiting for him to pick me up.” I told her how much I was suffering with my sisters and how we missed her. “You can sleep with me tonight,” she said. “Don’t tell your dad I’m still here. Please go get some of my clothes.” That’s all she said about it. In the morning, she left.

I didn’t hear from her for a while. Then she called me on my eighth birthday and told me not to cry, that she would give us a future. My mom was caught by La Migra and put in detention for six months. Then she returned home. She took us back and the same things kept going on.

My mom decided to take us to live at my grandfather’s house in a town near Olancho. The town was called Jiniapa in Cedros, near Talanga. We weren’t given enough food. We ate once or twice a day. I had to work in the field there, harvesting tomatoes, watermelons, corn, beans. I would work in the field every day and go to school in the afternoon sometimes. I preferred work to school, because I needed to eat. My grandfather told me that my mom hadn’t left any food and that I needed to work to buy food. So I kept working in the field. I didn’t touch the money I made. I’d carry buckets of tomatoes on my shoulders. They saw that I was good at growing the tomatoes, so I began to do that as well.

Five months passed and my mom went back to the United States. One day I got a phone call—I barely even knew what a phone was at the time—and I spoke with my mom. I told her that I couldn’t stand it any longer. My sister and I were stealing food to eat. It was that or waiting to be fed at school, which wasn’t enough. My mom told me we’d do something so that I could leave. I lied to my grandfather and told him that Save the Children was taking me and my sister. I told him we were going on a trip, but we went to the city. My maternal aunts in Villa Franca saw me at that point and began to cry at the state we were in. I was so emaciated, as was my sister. We began to live with my mother’s side of the family again, and I began to get better.

I carried it all in my head. When I was 10 I began to notice that something was changing. Everybody at school was calling me “gay,” “faggot,” “homosexual.” I didn’t know what that was or what they were referring to. They wouldn’t tell me. In time they began to say that I walked funny, that I walked like a woman. I finished sixth grade and went to a middle school in the center of the city. I went there for only half the year because the same thing began to occur there; kids were saying the same things to me. Some of my fellow students who belonged to the maras took weapons to school. We would get searched by security, and I told the mareros that I didn’t want to bring weapons to school. I was afraid of them. Other mareros who weren’t students began to give me drugs, and I began to get involved. But I didn’t like it, so I left that school. I went to my grandmother’s house in Villa Franca.

Now the maras were looking for me—to kill me. They wanted me to join the gang and were mad because I dropped out. They were asking my neighbors if they knew me. My grandmother told me it wasn’t safe and sent me to Jiniapa, my grandfather’s town. From there, I went to my aunt’s house. She asked me if I wanted to continue my studies. I told her I did. So I went back to the school where everyone was calling me gay and everything else. The name-calling continued. My friends would ask me to go play soccer, but I couldn’t because I didn’t know how. This also led them to call me gay. That’s how things went. Every day the same thing. Even the teachers said it. I hadn’t told anybody about the rapes. I carried it all in my head. I kept taking care of my sisters. Nobody knew about the rapes—nobody saw anything.

When I was 14, I told my mom I wanted to leave Honduras. I didn’t want to celebrate or go out for my 14th birthday. I didn’t like playing with toys. I didn’t like anything. I was always inside my house making my sisters food or helping them with their homework and doing my own. I couldn’t do anything else. I told my mom I wanted to come to the United States. She said it was dangerous. I told her, “If you don’t send for me, I’ll leave.” So she paid a coyote $6,000 to take me on the journey.

My good cousin took me from Tegucigalpa all the way to the Mexico-Guatemala border. We left Honduras on a bus at nine at night, on September 12, 2013. I didn’t have proper travel documents. The Honduran police stopped me for trying to leave the country illegally and held me for a day. We paid them a bribe, they released me, and I paid a taxi to cross the Guatemalan border. In Guatemala, the coyote took us to dirty hotels and fed us food we didn’t like. We got to San Luis Potosí, Mexico, where they kept us locked in a house with eight other people for a week before we left. Many days passed without eating or drinking water. We got to Monterrey, and from there we went to Miguel Alemán, Tamaulipas. We ran into the Zetas there. Another person and I were taken off the bus and asked who had brought us. We both said, “Mario,” the name of the coyote who had brought us. They told us to get back on the bus. There were other people traveling on the bus, and the Zetas made them get off and took them away. We never found out what happened to them. In northern Mexico, we were taken to a hotel with a lot of other migrants: Dominicans, Cubans, and people from other areas. We were taken to the river, where there was a raft, but we couldn’t cross, because US immigration was present. The next day, at five in the morning, they woke us up. We crossed the river into the United States and moved to a safe house. Then we went to McAllen, Texas. This was on November 26, 2013.

We stayed there for another week. On the first of December, a few days before my birthday, we went into the desert at dawn. We spent four nights in the desert, including the night of my 15th birthday. We drank water that was meant for cattle. We drank from anywhere we could find it. It was very cold. We had to keep watch for the border patrol airplanes and helicopters. This coyote was called “El Diablo.” He liked one of the girls in our group from Guatemala and he raped her in the desert. She was 18, I think. He was an older man, maybe 30 or 40 years old. We slept every night in the desert. There was a woman with us who was six months pregnant. There was another man from Guatemala who couldn’t walk anymore because of his swollen feet. Two people had to carry him.

We were all very tired. They would give us drugs to keep us awake, Ecstasy and I don’t know what other types of drugs—different colored pills. I began to feel extreme anxiety from the drugs they were feeding us; every three hours was another pill. Pill after pill. We felt no hunger, no cold, no weariness. The last night they ran out of pills, and we were very cold. The cold was killing me. We bundled up together to generate heat. We kept walking, running, jumping fences, and dodging cactus spines.

We came upon another group of people who’d been traveling two days ahead of us. A young man, under 18, had perished from exposure and lack of water and food. Five family members stayed with the dead boy. Their coyote and the rest of the group had abandoned them. We stopped, and then continued on our way. I got stuck in some barbed wire in the desert. The coyote kicked me, ripping my flesh to set me free. That was on my birthday, the night we got out of the desert.

We ran to find the vehicle that would take us. A truck arrived and inside there was a harrow and a tied-up horse. They crammed 90 people in our group in the back of that truck with the horse. The coyote, who had US papers, sat up front with the driver. We spent six long hours in the truck to get to Houston. The coyote told us that the family of the dead boy had been taken out of the desert by La Migra.

We were taken to a warehouse where a lot of people were making phone calls asking for more money to send for other people. They took us to another house, where I stayed for a day. The coyote called my mother, demanding more money. Finally, she paid them to bring me to San Francisco, where she was living.

The first days with my mom were difficult. I told my mom I wanted to begin school. I began in ninth grade. I thought they’d start me off learning English word by word, but I began reading a book about Manzanar, the concentration camp for Japanese Americans during World War II. It was difficult for me. I’d go to school one day and then the next I didn’t want to go. I didn’t really know English. It was hard for me to write. I was embarrassed at school, because the other students all understood English. But they helped me a lot to practice speaking and writing. I had a good experience there, because the teachers were prepared to help recent immigrants.

This whole process of telling my story began in 2014. That was the most difficult year. I was talking to many people—my doctor, my therapist, and the social worker—while trying to come to terms with it all. Eventually, I told my mom about one person raping me, not about all seven. Mom didn’t believe me. She still doesn’t accept what happened. It was my own family, so she doesn’t know what to say. I don’t speak with her about that anymore. She knows about it, but doesn’t like talking about the subject.

When I was 15, in high school, I worried a lot about being deported to Honduras. I wondered, How can I stay permanently in the United States? I applied for asylum—first, because my dad used to beat me, and second, for everything else that I’d gone through. My immigration lawyer was a role model for me because she listened to my experiences. Now I’m a Spanish major at UC Berkeley. All of my classes are online. Some professors are going so far as to say that they don’t want to hear any other noises when you speak or see people in your background during class. Maybe the professors have their own houses and they live by themselves. Some of the students, like myself, don’t have a place where we can be in the class without other people being around. If I’m at home and I want to speak, I’d have to get everyone in the house to be quiet. My whole family and I—11 people—live in the same four-bedroom apartment. We have shared spaces and we’re not able to tell each other, “OK, move out,” or “Go to the other room because I’m in class.”

Professors are trying to make us do more than we’re capable of doing. And that’s in every class. It’s three or four times harder for us students. One professor wants us to volunteer at a nonprofit with the pandemic going on. She thinks that we’re at home, chilling, while actually some of us are working, some of us are doing more than we were before.

Starting in February, I was working as a janitor for a neighborhood of apartment blocks in San Francisco. We had to clean these spaces for thousands of residents living there and take the trash out to the compactors. If we stopped that process for even one day, it would be a mess. I worked 40 to 60 hours a week. In early April, I got very sick. I went to the hospital, I was feeling so weird. I coughed in front of some people waiting in the emergency room and they jumped away from me because they thought that I had the virus. I have asthma, so I was worried about what would happen if I couldn’t breathe. What would happen if I’m at home and there’s not a ventilator for me? I’m going to be the next one on the list of statistics of how many people die every day. I got tested and the results came back negative. After a few weeks, my cough went away. I don’t know what it was that I had.

The last week of April, I left my job. The supervisors, upper management, and other employees—they used to tell me that being gay was wrong. They’d always say that I have a demon because I’m gay. They’d say some jobs weren’t necessarily for me because of my sexual orientation, and they were also kind of racist at the same time.

I filed for unemployment while I try to get another job. There are really bad jobs out there. My family was worried at the beginning of the pandemic. Now they’re more worried than ever because there are a lot of rumors about Latino people being impacted here in Hunter’s Point and in the Mission. My family members work in the kitchens at restaurants, but only two people are working right now. Everyone else lost their jobs in March, because of the pandemic. Almost all of my family members are undocumented. They can’t file for unemployment. They can’t receive stimulus payments. Even though I pay taxes and I have a Social Security number, I wasn’t able to get the $1,200 stimulus payment from the government, because I’m dependent on my mom. There aren’t enough resources. My whole family is dependent on two of us who were working to get the food and pay the bills. I myself was waiting for the next paycheck when this whole thing started. Then I got into debt with all my credit cards because I needed to buy food. I had some savings, but now I’m going broke. There are less resources in Spanish. Even in a pandemic, we’re still a minority. We don’t get the resources. We’re up against a barrier to everything—getting food, getting supplies. It’s hard.

The end of the semester was a whole mess. I passed only one of my three classes. With classes all online, my motivation went down. And the discrimination I experienced at my job had a big impact on my mental health. I have major clinical depression, and all that stress built up. I had many breakdowns during this spring semester. I feel like I would’ve passed all my classes if the pandemic hadn’t happened.

I’ve focused on my goals and now I’m figuring out how to fulfill them. My mentality changed quickly after I began to speak out in public; I realized what my dream is. I want to be an attorney in criminology and defend the rights of children. I want to protect those who’ve been sexually abused or mistreated by their parents. One day, I might even like to work with the Honduran government to help children, but they’ll have to follow the rules of the US government, not simply agree to and take money.

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