Lectures

El Virus: A Contagion of Racism & How Networks of Care Can Stop It

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My mother FaceTimed me a month ago and asked if I needed her to ship me hand sanitizer from Phoenix to Oregon. I thought it a silly question, but in hindsight, I should have known better than to doubt my mother. During our chat she informed me that a relative called earlier in the day to check in on her, concerned my mom might catch ‘el virus.’ My mother is on hemodialysis as a result of a longstanding relationship with lupus— making her more susceptible to a severe case of coronavirus, or ‘el virus’ as she calls it.

My mother’s arm poked and prodded. She often refers to taking care of her body as an act of labor. Photo by the author.

She continued to recap the conversation with the relative: Me dijo que no hay hand sanitizer en ninguna tienda. Le dije que pues aquí todo seguía normal y que le mandaría unas botellas de hand sanitizer. / She told me stores were out of hand sanitizer. I said to her that everything here was normal and that I would send her a few bottles of hand sanitizer.

I coughed a couple of times as I listened to her.

She paused, and asked: ¿Sigues tosiendo? ¿Ya fuiste al doctor? / You still have a cough? Have you seen a doctor?

I had recently returned from a ten day trip to the east coast where coronavirus had begun to spread. I assured my mother the college town in which I live had no reported cases, and that despite a stubborn sinus infection, I was fine. 

Before we ended our chat, my mom once again asked: ¿Seguro que no ocupas nada? Te podemos mandar lo que ocupes por correo. / Are you sure you do not need anything? We can send it to you by mail.

From the perspective of a DACAmented researcher working with undocumented and mixed-status families, I investigate how forms of care travel between and across political, cultural, and physical borders. My collaborations with undocu/DACAmented mothers provide me insight into the everyday negotiations immigrant women make between their bodies and the neoliberal nation-state to advance their children’s social mobility. 

My mother, a janitor, wiping down sinks during the night shift. Photo by the author.

Like many others, I find myself fervently refreshing my news and social media feeds about coronavirus. I search for stories about the protections for immigrants, and what I find is troublesome. The tweets, blogs, and popular news articles I read invoke a deep sadness in me because many migrants cannot work remotely, their options to voluntarily take time off from work are limited, they do not have health insurance, and they live paycheck to paycheck. They keep working because they have to, often at the expense of their bodies. 

Doris Reina-Landaverde, a Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holder and custodian at Harvard University, who cleaned dormitories after the university evacuated students, began to show symptoms of coronavirus but has been unable to get tested. Migrant farmworkers in the Central Coast of California, now deemed ‘essential workers,’ bend their bodies swiftly and methodically to the rhythm of heavy machinery to bring food to our tables. Despite their highly skilled labor, the US government has a history of passing laws that mark farmworkers as disposable bodies, and in turn, agricultural laborers “expend exceptional effort to maintain their jobs” (Horton 2016). 

Oregon farmworkers continue working amid coronavirus pandemic.
Photo by Laura Bennett

Coronavirus has not deterred Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents from raiding communities and placing unauthorized migrants in cramped cages. Two physicians that work with the DHS shared a letter warning that detention centers are at risk of a “tinderbox scenario” or disease cluster. The doctors also suggested that “releasing all immigration detainees who do not pose a security risk should be seriously considered in the national effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus.” ICE published a website with updates on people in custody and employees with confirmed cases of coronavirus, but I am unsure how much I can trust this source.

Women at an ICE detention center used a video visitation program to express their fears about a fellow detainee that demonstrated symptoms of the virus. Dressed in orange jumpsuits, the women displayed signs to communicate that the woman they suspected of being sick worked in the kitchen, potentially putting all of them at risk. One of the messages read, “is very crowded here,” followed by, “we are 72 women living in the same dorm, one above the other.” “We have very much fear” is the last display before the guards arrived to break up the group of women huddled in front of the camera. The video ends in disruption and my heart breaks.

Equally important are the protections of the DACA program whose future rests on the Supreme Court decision expected between now and June. In keeping with public health precautions, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced it would suspend in-person services— an impact felt by DACA recipients, asylum seekers, TPS grantees, and many non-US citizens seeking to maintain or adjust their immigration status. In an update, the DHS said it would process applications with previously submitted biometrics, which reveals the redundancy of subsequent biometric appointments that they have required of DACA recipients every two years. How the DHS will address cases in which applicants encounter a lapse in immigration status due to delays and rapid policy changes is still unknown. 

What I do know is DACA recipients are experiencing layoffs, do not qualify for unemployment benefits in 46 states, are ineligible for federal benefits (Medicaid and food stamps), and in addition to these worries, have to pay $495 to renew their immigration status. This fee is already a financial barrier for many DACA recipients with limited capital, and recently the US government proposed to increase it to $765. The pandemic has curtailed operations for many immigrant rights groups across the country. My sister’s permit is up for renewal, but our joint efforts to find financial assistance have come up short because of an increase in DACA folks looking to renew their status before the Court decision, and healthcare precautions complicate community outreach. These challenges are a testament to US politicians’ flippant disregard for non-citizens despite the fact that immigrants contribute tremendously to the everyday operation of this nation.

The United States maintains a longstanding narrative of a country built by immigrants, and at the same time, it underplays this myth through its displacement of people. Additionally, this common belief silences the presence of Indigenous communities already living on and with this land who were forcibly and violently removed, killed, and disempowered by European settlers. A nation built by immigrants ignores slavery and the dehumanization of Black lives, and the legal undoing of their personhood. And popularized history overlooks the Chinese immigrants who built the transcontinental railroad. By no means is it a coincidence that racialized groups and class-marginalized communities will suffer the most throughout the pandemic.  

My older sister text-messaged me last week. Worried about me, she asked if I had enough food supplies. She wanted to send a care package that included hand sanitizer, dry goods, and Mexican treats our younger sister bought for me. I replied that I appreciated their thoughts, but that it would not be necessary. 

Every winter my mother and sister send me tamales to share with my professors.
Photo by the author.

I am fortunate to have constructed a family since my move to Corvallis, Oregon. I live with two of my professors, their boisterous children, and a shaggy loveable dog. When DACA went to the Supreme Court, they offered me housing as a way of financial and emotional support. At the beginning of each month, per my insistence, I write them a check for a small amount. They do not always cash it. My housing arrangement allows me to allocate a portion of my finances to supplement my family’s low earnings. We share a mutual love and appreciation for each other, and undoubtedly their care for me crosses over to my family.

I am mindful that my kinship networks provide me access to resources not available to most low-income non-citizens. I also recognize that my mother and sister’s labor has given me the privilege to dedicate my time to my pursuits of undergraduate and graduate degrees in applied and activist anthropology. In a group-chat with DACAmented folks and allies from Oregon State University, we discuss the barriers our peers are encountering. Our school administrators have yet to communicate how they intend to support class-marginalized students throughout this time. Instead, their bombardment of emails focuses on the transition to remote classroom instruction.

At the moment, one invaluable resource for mutual aid is the COVID-19 Support Network established by the Coalition of Graduate Employees (CGE) at Oregon State University, which is available to all students and community members regardless of their citizenship status. Guided by an ethos of community building and resilience, CGE provides food assistance, grocery delivery, rideshares, childcare, and various other services. Under-housed and food-insecure students can count on the support of the Human Services Resource Center, a campus-based food pantry offering food boxes and emergency shelter. I worry about the sustainability of such welfare programs under neoliberal educational restructuring. 

As policymakers debate what, whom, and where to allocate funds, coronavirus is spreading, and people are dying. Undocumented immigrants remain one of the groups most afflicted, and my inclination is that many will not survive. When asked during a recent press conference about aiding undocumented people during the pandemic, Donald Trump responded:

“Well, you know, you’re saying undocumented, meaning they came in illegally. A lot of people would say we have a lot of citizens right now that won’t be working. So, what [do] you do? It’s a tough thing. It’s a very terrible–it’s a very sad question, I must be honest with you. But they came in illegally. And we have a lot of people that are citizens of our country that won’t be able to have jobs.”

In his vitriolic 2016 campaign, Trump demonstrated his penchant for fear-mongering, anti-immigrant rhetoric: “Tremendous infectious disease is pouring across the border,” he said. His continuous callous invectives about “the Chinese virus” reinforce the racism and xenophobia that his supporters expect and further propagate. Cherríe Moraga (1981) tells us, “what the oppressor often succeeds in doing is simply externalizing his fears, projecting them into the bodies of women, Asians, gays, disabled folks, whoever seems most ‘other.’” Like many before him, Trump uses language as a tool to inflict fear, harness power, and protect the white nation. Perales (2013) emphasizes how eugenics in the US has made the exclusion and discrimination of (Mexican) immigrants permissible over the past century:

“Historically, mexicanas’ bodies represented multiple threats: women were individuals even likelier to become public charges and more susceptible to vice and corruption; they were potential prostitutes that destroyed the moral character of the nation, carriers of disease and contagion, and, particularly in later generations, they became ‘hyper-fertile baby machines’ whose children would illegitimately draw from social services.” 

“Está muy mal ese señor/ That man is very sick,” my mom tells me when we discuss Trump. 

I agree with her. Racism is a disease, an abnormal condition that originates from the contact of Western men and power, and Trump is a complicit carrier. This virus causes a desire for domination, and it has spread into every crevice of the United States government. Symptoms of this disease include chronic disparities in health, education, wealth and income. Coronavirus has uncovered oppression that has for years “brewed in our beds, tables, and streets” (Anzaldúa 2015). Trump and his administration’s inefficient and pitiful response to the pandemic reflects the lack of care their system of governance has for the overworked and underpaid poor and the undocumented. 

This morning I sat on the staircase and I called my mom. It has been about a month since she asked if I needed some hand sanitizer. And although we have not been able to purchase any in weeks, this is not the reason I’ve called. I wanted to say hello. I wanted to hug her and kiss her chubby, freckled cheeks. I missed her terribly. And I secretly mourned the loss of her planned visit to Oregon this June.

She greeted me and then inquired: Hola. ¿Como te sientes?/ Hi. How are you feeling?

I moved my knees closer to my chest and replied: Sigo tosiendo un poco pero igual ya no. Como te había dicho, el doctor dijo que porque no tuve fiebre no cree que sea el virus. Tengo que regresar en dos semanas. / I keep coughing, but not like before. Like I told you, the doctor said that because I didn’t have a fever they don’t think it’s the virus. I have to go back in two weeks.

What she said next took me by surprise: Tu papá quiere que le pidamos un favor a una amiga para que vaya por ti en carro. Y que le podemos pagar. Pero le dije que no. Es mejor que te quedes con tus profesores. Acuérdate de darles las gracias. / Your dad wants us to ask a friend for a favor, to go and get you by car. And that we can pay her. I told him no. You’re better staying with your professors. Remember to thank them.

For many undocu/DACAmented people, living in precarity is not a new experience. Uncertainty and fear are the conditions in which we work, play, love, and care — even if with limited mobility. We acknowledge that access to our families is a great privilege, and that separation, even if momentarily, is an aspect we must endure. When systems fail to care for us, we rely on the care of our networks. But I worry that these social networks will not endure under the increasingly corrupt and sickly rule of Trump and the GOP.

Coronavirus spreads through physical contact. We are advised to wash our hands often and to remain indoors. Yet, moments of great tragedy and collective suffering are when solidarity, unity, and mobilization are needed the most. Anzaldúa expresses the saliency of touch in bringing communities together for political revolution:

“Touching is an act of making love, and if political touching is not made with love no connections, no linkages happen. We each are our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers; no one is an island or has ever been…We are each responsible for what is happening down the street, south of the border or across the sea. And those of us who have more of anything–more brains, more physical strength, more political power, more money, or more spiritual energies–must give or exchange with those who don’t have these energies but may have other things to give. It is the responsibility of some of us to tap the vast source of spiritual/political energies to heal others, to put down a drawbridge; at the same time we must depend more and more on our sources of survival” (2015).

At the moment, the risk of contagion keeps us physically distant. However, this does not permit us, the minoritized and vulnerable, to remain detached from one another. We would be wise to heed Anzaldúa’s advice; otherwise, we risk further spread of ‘el virus’ – the infectious disease of racism that preys and immobilizes the ‘other.’ If left untreated, it will fester within white-identifying communities and continue to wreak havoc.


Bibliography

Anzaldúa, Gloria. 2015. “Acts of healing.” This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color.

Moraga, Cherríe. 1981. “La Güera.” This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color.

Perales, M. 2013. “On Borderlands/La Frontera: Gloria Anzaldúa and Twenty-Five Years of Research on Gender in the Borderlands.” Journal of Women’s History25(4), 163-173. doi:10.1353/jowh.2013.0047.


Argenis Hurtado Moreno, a son of immigrants, focuses his anthropological inquiries on topics of migration, gender, race, kinship, social movements, and media. You can follow him on Twitter at @antropologoDACA


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