Laid-off workers share survival tales amid coronavirus pandemic

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JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) — Sitting on the sidewalk of a Downtown Juarez park, Juan Carlos Hernandez reflects on the “new normal” in times of COVID-19.

“I was the head cook at a maquila three months ago. Now, look at me, I’m living off of charity,” the father of three said as he ate a hot meal out of a Styrofoam tray in front of a community kitchen.

Across the street, a line of young men and a few older adults grew. Many of them recently came to Juarez from the Mexican countryside lured by jobs at U.S.-run assembly plants. Being the last ones hired, they were the first sent home when the plants closed or cut back production in March and April due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hernandez survived by doing odd jobs in his neighborhood. When that wasn’t enough to put food on the table, he says he began roaming Downtown streets with a rag in his hand, offering to wash car windshields at intersections.

Laid off maquiladora kitchen worker Juan Carlos Hernandez. (photo by Julian Resendiz/Border Report)

The fear of his family going hungry superseded any fears of catching the coronavirus by being out and about all day.

“Of course I want to go back to the maquilas, but it’s not easy. When people said they were going to reopen, I went there to look for work,” he said. “But there’s a lot of misinformation. They have all the people they need for now. They said, ‘maybe later,’ so here I am back on the streets.”

Chihuahua state officials estimate that at least 50,000 people have been left without jobs during the pandemic, with most factories, retailers and services providers temporarily closed. The number might be a lot higher because many people are part of the underground economy — from street vendors to parking lot attendants to people who make and sell products out of their homes.

The Mexican government late last month announced a phased reopening of its economy and gave the green light to the U.S.-run automotive and aerospace parts factories to resume operations at between 25 and 30 percent on June 1.

The construction industry also resumed operations on Monday, but Raymundo Vargas, 50, said he’s not going to go beg for his old job.

As he scrambled to make ends meet during the pandemic, Vargas says he learned that his skills had been underappreciated. He can lay bricks, set floor tile and do plumbing.

“I have some tools and I’ve been working on houses in my neighborhood. When there’s work, I set my own hours and I like that. When there’s no work, I come to places like these,” he said outside the community kitchen, which is run by Juarez municipal government.

Raymundo Vargas explains how he’s survived economically after being laid off during the COVID-19 pandemic. (photo by Julian Resendiz)

Ignacio Luis Pena, also in his 50s, said surviving economically during the pandemic has been a family project. With three generations living under one roof in the Bellavista neighborhood just west of Downtown, his wife and daughter have been selling handicrafts door to door while his sons have been fixing up fences and roofs in the area.

“It’s very ugly right now. Sometimes my wife can’t find the fabric to make the things she sells,” the laid-off parking attendant said outside the community kitchen south of Benito Juarez Monument Park, as he got his tray of warm food to go. “Things will get better, hopefully.”

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