The following story is by SF State journalism student Marlyn Sanchez Nol, who in Spring 2022 completed her capstone project in the JOUR 695 Senior Seminar class. The following project looks inside the lives of Latina women working in the service and farmworking industry during the pandemic, and has been split into parts. This is the final installment of this series. All quotes have been translated from Spanish to English by the author. To read the first two stories in this series, visit eltecolote.org
According to the National Center for Farmworker Health, Hispanic or Latino workers employed in food production or agriculture have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 compared to non-Hispanic workers in those industries. The same report stated that as of December 20, 2021, there have been 1 million confirmed COVID-19 cases among agricultural workers.
Maria Gasca was one of those cases.
Gasca — originally from a small town in Guanajuato — was 19 when she immigrated from Mexico and has been working in agriculture ever since. “Having never worked in Mexico, it was very difficult to imagine years later that I would be picking lettuce for nearly half as long as I’ve been alive,” Gasca said.
But learning to adapt to working through a pandemic all while raising her 12-year-old special needs daughter brought another series of challenges.
The 37-year-old couldn’t fathom how she would navigate the danger of contracting this deadly virus at work and meeting her daughter’s high physical attachment tendencies. “My daughter prefers my physical interaction over anyone else’s,” Gasca said. “She constantly hugs me, touches me. She just wants to be close to me all the time right when I get home from work.”
Gasca’s daughter is not able to communicate with her except by pointing to certain objects, which according to Gasca, is further complicated by the fact that her daughter mostly understands English and not Spanish, which is Gasca’s first language. “When you have someone who can’t let you know what’s wrong with them, how would I know if my daughter couldn’t breathe and at what point would it even be too late?” Gasca added.
For the last two years, Gasca would pray every morning before heading off to work in the fields, wishing for good health. “I couldn’t think of anything else,” she said. “I was consumed by the thought of my kids’ health at all times and maintaining my job.”
Then in April of 2021, Gasca’s world took an unexpected turn when she tested positive for COVID-19.
“I remember I started feeling some symptoms and so I decided to go get tested. Sure enough what I had feared for so long was actually happening,” Gasca said.
Gasca was out of work for approximately three weeks, yet the most daunting task throughout was being home. Gasca tried to keep her daughter at a safe distance. But she couldn’t keep her daughter from hugging her and wanting to sleep in the same bed.
“How do you tell a special needs child, who requires your physical touch to be emotionally stable, to keep away from you? I couldn’t do anything to keep my daughter away because the alternative was to have her feel rejected and in her 12 years of life I’ve never done that to her,” Gasca said.
As the days of her quarantine went by, Gasca was surprised to see that her daughter did not exhibit any symptoms and never tested positive. Her 17-year-old son wasn’t as fortunate. “While I was scared for either one of my children to get infected, I never expected for my son to be the one to get sick instead of my daughter, who spent every waking moment of quarantine with me,” Gasca said.
When Gasca returned to work, some of her initial fear subsided. But something else became very clear.
“My biggest goal is to find another job, anywhere else,” she said. “I can no longer tether myself to this job because the pay is slightly better than other jobs. I never want to fear walking into work ever again.”
Gasca hopes to begin English classes in the near future. “I want to learn English so that I can broaden my corporate horizons and I truly just want to spend more time with my children, but all I can do is hope that these dreams of mine become a reality in this lifetime,” Gasca said.
For Gasca and Judith Arellano Lozada, Maria Angelica Beltran, Susana Figueroa and Claudia Maria Solorzano — whose stories were told in the first two parts of this series — their lives changed in ways they could have never imagined. Yet all share the bond of being Latinas who worked through the pandemic.
“My story is a depiction of many like me,” Beltran said. “But I don’t say this proudly or with happiness. I choose to believe that the system is broken for us Latinas and maybe one day someone will find the missing part.”