For almost two decades, Leticia Mercado has been a textile worker, zooming along on a sewing machine, her hands a blur. In fact, when she spoke to Prism over Zoom on Tuesday, she was sitting at a sewing station in her garage, which has been converted into a workspace. This is the site of her new business, Hecho en Carolina, one of the only mask sewing businesses in the country run entirely by essential workers for essential workers—serving educators, restaurant workers, construction workers, and others working through the pandemic. The masks can be purchased individually online, or wholesale.

Like countless immigrant workers nationwide, Mercado and her husband have been subjected to unsafe working conditions during the COVID-19 crisis. At the North Carolina textile plant where they worked, there was no social distancing or protocols for disinfecting. Even more alarming, workers were not required to wear masks. Mercado and her husband ultimately decided they would not risk their health or the health of their family to continue working at the plant. As a member of the Latinx advocacy organization Siembra NC, Mercado brainstormed with the organization’s many volunteers—including Nikki Marín Baena—to figure out how she and her husband could safely continue making ends meet doing textile work. This is how Hecho en Carolina was born, with Marín Baena serving as a production and sales manager. The small, immigrant-owned business has already produced thousands of masks for other essential workers across the state, including the Guilford County Association of Educators.

Mercado is “humble,” said Siembra NC organizer Laura Garduño Garcia, and unlikely to discuss her many contributions to the local community. Mercado first became a member of Siembra in February 2019 when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) carried out a series of raids across the state as a way of retaliating against newly-elected Black sheriffs who decided they would no longer collaborate with the federal immigration agency. Mercado’s family was personally affected by the raids and one of their loved ones was deported. Ever since, the textile worker has been in the fight for immigrant rights. More recently, she and her husband have focused on mutual aid to support members of their community who are undocumented and uninsured during the pandemic, providing them with groceries, masks, and other essentials. 

Before she launched into sewing more masks, Mercado talked to Prism about the conditions she and her husband faced at a North Carolina textile plant, the success of her small business, and the importance of wearing masks. Here she is, in her own words:  

At the plant where I worked, I knew several people who got sick. I worked with my husband at the plant and one of the things that we didn’t like about the working conditions was that we were told that precautions were up to individual people. In other words, each person had to be responsible for the cleanliness of their area or for the precautions that they would take. There was never a code or a system or a practice that the company had. They never took anyone’s temperatures. None of the protocols changed after COVID. There was not one difference in the plant’s practices pre-COVID and after COVID.

It was very frustrating to me that there was no difference in the sanitizing practices at the plant. They were taking such a risk and for us, it was an unnecessary risk to take. We became tired of always feeling like we were putting ourselves at risk. We were constantly worried; my husband became sick with worry and anxiety from having to think about getting sick, about risking his health and the health of the family.

We decided we would feel most comfortable doing work from home—for the health of our children and my grandchildren. We decided as a family that we couldn’t take that risk [of going to the factory] because my husband has certain conditions that put him at greater risk of complications from COVID. At the plant, they never enforced that people had to wear face masks; hardly any employees wore face masks. In fact, it was more of a stigma; it was a hostile work environment. When we wore a face mask, we were often made fun of and ridiculed.

My comadre is the one who motivated me to go into mask-making. She really encouraged me and I don’t think I would have done this without her. My husband and I have always had our own [sewing] machines in our home because in the past, we did upholstery and reupholstery work. In that way, this has been a really natural business. So far, the business is going well and it is because this has been an effort of many people. [Marín Baena] is the person who has helped us make so many sales. She has been key in getting the number of sales to go up. I just did not know [the pandemic] would last this long. I thought we would all go into “quarantine” and then after that there would be a vaccine and we wouldn’t need to worry about masks anymore. Here we are, almost a year later, and we have more orders than we ever thought.

I want people to know that our company is a group of immigrants eager to work and get ahead. Everything we do is done with love and made in North Carolina. I also want people to know that it’s very important for [essential] workers and regular, everyday people to wear masks. I will share a story about my own family as an example: My brother had COVID and he didn’t know it. My sister visited with him and they talked for a long time and then she got COVID. Had my sister worn a face mask, she could have been protected. It’s not just that we want people to buy our face masks and support our family; we want them to help prevent the spread of COVID.

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.