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This narrative in the Unheard Voices of the Pandemic series from Voice of Witness is published with permission, as part of a partnership with Prism. Interview and editing by Marci Denesiuk.

Emmanuel Rodríguez lives and works in a municipality on the west coast of Puerto Rico with a population of around 70,000. He lives with his wife, their two sons, his eight-year-old nephew, and father-in-law. The family shares a one-story, three-bedroom house. Darlyn works part-time as a nurse and also makes jewelry, but Emmanuel is the primary provider for his family. Emmanuel has worked as a dental assistant for seven years. He gets paid $8 an hour. When we spoke to Emmanuel, Puerto Rico had been on lockdown due to COVID-19 since March 15. All businesses were closed except for those providing essential services such as grocery stores, pharmacies, and gas stations.

There was no income coming in. I was really worried about what was going to happen. I had to pay bills and make car payments. At that time, no one was giving breaks for payments yet. Darlyn and I don’t have medical insurance. I don’t get coverage with my job. The government covers the kids, but my wife and I aren’t eligible for Medicaid. We used to have it, but they took it away two months ago. If you exceed the limit for income, even by a dollar, they remove you. So now we have to pay for our own medications. And God help us if we have to be in the hospital, because I’d have to pay for it in cash and we just don’t have it.

A regular day before COVID-19, when both Darlyn and I were working, we were like a tag team. She’d work from 10 at night until six in the morning. I’d pick her up. The baby would still be asleep, but I’d have the older boys ready for school. It’s rare for my father-in-law to be awake that early, so I’d leave breakfast ready for him. Then Darlyn could rest up.

I’d get to the dentist’s office by 7:30 AM. Usually I’m supposed to leave the office by 5 PM, but sometimes it’s 6:30 or even 7. That’s pretty late for me. So I come home, shower, eat, and help a bit if there’s anything to be done around the house. Then I just go to bed.

I keep myself on the move. At home, I do chores: washing clothes, mopping, taking out trash. I don’t like anything to be dirty or out of place. I like to cook as well. Now with the lockdown, I’m basically full time at the house, and my days are pretty much cleaning and cooking. For breakfast I make eggs. My oldest son loves hot dogs and my nephew likes sausages, so I do that, too. For lunch, they love Chef Boyardee spaghetti. They’ve tried homemade spaghetti, but they don’t like it as much. For dinner, I cook rice with beans and ham or sausages. I love fried meat! These days, I’m always in the kitchen.

Darlyn sits at the table and works with the older kids who have all their schoolwork. They get breaks when they can relax and go out in the backyard with the dogs. Other than that, we have to get groceries from stores. The lines are pretty long. We haven’t been going to Sam’s Club because the lines there are three or four blocks long.

I wish this whole thing would go away. I first heard about COVID-19 on the news, but I didn’t really pay attention to it since it seemed far away. Around the beginning of March, my boss told us that someone in the medical center here in Mayagüez might have COVID-19 and that we should start taking more protective measures. We already wear masks and gloves, but we started doubling them. We started seeing on the news that more cases were confirmed. We closed the dentist office on March 10.

At first, Darlyn was still working a couple days a week, so that really helped. But around March 20, the nursing home that she works for let her go. They knew that she had kids and they didn’t want to expose her.

I knew that I’d have to go to the Departamento to ask for help and go through the same long process as when Hurricane María hit the island in 2017 and I was out of work for months. On March 16, I filled out the forms online. Their employees weren’t working in the office and they closed down the whole building. At first I filled out the forms as if my loss of work was a temporary thing. I didn’t know we’d be closed so long. I thought, We’re going to open again pretty soon, hopefully. But when I contacted one of the Departmento workers, they said, “Since the whole office is closed, you have to fill it out as if you lost the job.” I filled the form out again.

I was waiting for money to come in, and it’d been three or four weeks, and I was really desperate, especially having three kids at home. There was a time when the baby didn’t have diapers or baby wipes. We did have food stamps and that little bit of money from that program in cash, but it’s not that much help. We used it to buy Clorox. I was thinking, Maybe I should ask my boss for some vacation pay I had. If that didn’t work, I’d need to find someone who could lend me some money.

Darlyn was sad and disappointed because she’d been let go from her job and couldn’t help me. She said, “I don’t want you to keep paying the bills by yourself. I want to help.” We always comfort each other and try to look on the bright side. We said, “We can get through this. We can try to find small jobs running errands, or our brothers and sisters in church or maybe family members can help us out.” Darlyn makes jewelry and sells it online. She gets $10 or $20 a piece, and right now people are buying like crazy. She can make around $90 a week. So, that helped us a lot.

We finally got our first unemployment check on April 27, six weeks after I’d applied for help. We get $198 every two weeks. We also got the federal money that everybody is getting. That money came to Puerto Rico around May 2, but there are still thousands who haven’t received these benefits and are waiting for help. Last week, I was that person. I didn’t have anything at all.

Getting money was such a relief, but things are still difficult. I’m really afraid of another big earthquake. It’s also hard not being able to see family. I have a sister and niece who live in Rincón, a town not far from here. Before the lockdown, on weekends, the whole family would meet up there. We’d do a lunch or dinner and share food. Here, in Mayagüez, I have a brother from my dad’s side, and we’d go to his house and watch wrestling or movies. My brother-in-law has a horse. The kids like to ride the horse a lot, so they miss that.

What I miss most is work. It keeps me sane. I like being active. I love talking with patients. My biggest worry about this whole thing was that I’d lose my job, but Dr. Deliz wants to keep his staff intact. We’re talking about opening up again. Dr. Deliz has bought covers for the chairs in the waiting room, disposable gowns, and more gloves. There’s going to be a plexiglass shield around the desk where the secretaries sit. He put in some special ultraviolet lights to kill germs. He’s also thinking about certain things he wants to do, like checking that patients have no fever before they come in, limiting how many patients he’ll be able to see in a day. It’ll be fewer than before, so we probably won’t work the same full-time hours as we used to. I’m worried about the economy and all the businesses that haven’t been able to open yet, like our office. I worry about coming back. It’s still all very uncertain.  

Emmanuel returned to work near the beginning of June. But almost five months after reopening, the dentist’s office had to reduce its staff due to the impact of COVID-19 on business. Emmanuel was laid off on October 12, 2020.

Marci Denesiuk

Marci Denesiuk teaches at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez and is the co-editor of the forthcoming Voice of Witness book Mi María: Surviving the Storm.