‘Reverse Assimilation’ Podcast Unpacks What it Means to be Mexican-American

Above: Jesús Herrera modeling Les Jesus, a fashion brand based on traditional Mexican craftsmanship which he co-founded with his husband. Herrera is a fashion designer and model whose family crossed the border without documents when he was six and settled in Rockford, Illinois. Herrera decided to move back to Mexico in 2010 and was one of the 1.1 million Mexican nationals who returned voluntarily between 2010 and 2018. Photo by Andres Navarro

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Lisa Saldivar ordered lunch on a Mexico City street corner on a cloudy day in August. Her quesadilla came with friendly ribbing from the vendor about her imperfect Spanish. Like many American children of Mexican immigrants, she grew up in a household where family members spoke to her in Spanish and she responded in English. 

As a kid trying to fit in as a first-generation Mexican-American in Texas she never expected her Americanized accent would have her trying to fit in all over again as an adult, only this time in Mexico City, Mexico. 

Understanding how generations of immigrant families like hers weave themselves into life in the United States is the motivation behind Reverse Assimilation, a podcast that Saldivar created with mixed-media collage artist Jay Berrones.

Saldivar is an illustrator and graphic designer who moved from the United States to Mexico. She’s part of an increase in reverse migration over the last decade that has resulted in an estimated 1.5 million Americans currently living in Mexico. More people have moved to Mexico from the United States in recent years than the other way around.

Some of the Americans who move to Mexico are following their undocumented family members. Mexican immigrants living in the United States without papers have increasingly returned home in the wake of the U.S. economy’s slow recovery from the 2008 recession. Others are retirees stretching their pensions or remote workers looking to enjoy the warmer climate.

Still others, like Saldivar, move to Mexico to try and connect with their family’s roots. When she moved in 2016, she hoped to fill in what she felt was missing in her identity. But the reality of that effort, she discovered, is complicated. 

“In the U.S. it always felt like I wasn’t American enough, and as soon as I got here it felt like I wasn’t Mexican enough,” she says. 

When a truck lumbered by, meticulously packed with a mountain of stuff stacked at least twelve feet high, Saldivar burst out laughing in the middle of the street. 

“I remembered all the fights my grandma and my dad would get into when we would go on vacation, because they would do that — Jenga together this crazy situation,” she says. “I’m seeing where my parents and grandparents had learned these things that in the U.S. were just something I wouldn’t want to tell the kids at school.”

These moments of frustration and revelation are the subject of Reverse Assimilation, which got its start thanks to Saldivar and Berrones meeting after renting studios in the artists’ space Los Catorce — a crumbling and technically condemned mansion in the San Rafael neighborhood of Mexico City. 

After months of tentative greetings of “Qué onda?”— each assuming the other was born and raised in Mexico — they finally realized that both had actually grown up in Houston and moved to Mexico City. Both made the decision partly out of a need to answer questions about their heritage. 

Lisa Saldivar and Jay Berrones, co-creators of the podcast Reverse Assimilation. Photo by Alicia Vera

The day they realized that they talked for four hours. 

“I actually think two or three hours in I was like, ‘Do you want water?’ because we were talking nonstop,” Saldivar says. 

“The whole conversation was littered with, ‘I thought I was the only one,’” says Berrones, a third-generation Mexican-American whose family was crossed by the border when Mexico lost half of its territory to the United States in 1848. 

He identified with Saldivar’s sense of cultural erasure over generations.

“When my mom was growing up in my grandparent’s house, you couldn’t turn anywhere without seeing the Virgen de Guadalupe,” he says. “But she taught me, ‘We don’t do that.’” 

In the audio archive’s first installment of six episodes, released in September, Saldivar and Berrones host candid conversations with four fellow Mexican-American artists from southern California, the Midwest, Miami, and the borderlands who have found themselves living in Mexico City. 

“We were surrounded by other Mexican-American artists, and when this topic would come up at parties, we’d see other people’s eyes light up; they’d have a lot to say,” says Saldivar. “We were already having these conversations, all we needed to do was provide a structure for it.” 

The interviews consist of Mexican-Americans swapping stories and asking questions as they unpack their respective families’ varied experiences of assimilation into white American culture. Though Saldivar and Berrones emphasize that assimilation isn’t anyone’s fault or even inherently negative, they say it can become problematic when it comes at the loss of cultural expression. 

Jesús Herrera is a fashion designer and model whose family crossed the border without documents when he was six and settled in Rockford, Illinois. 

“You can’t keep both [your Mexican identity and American identity] present; you have to give one up to be able to do one well,” says Herrera, in the podcast’s second episode. So I became a ‘good American’ — whatever that means — and I became a ‘bad Mexican.’” 

Saldivar and Berrones reference the assimilation spectrum laid out by American sociologist Milton Gordon in 1964. He describes a process of seven stages that roughly include adopting daily customs, entering the public sphere, intermarrying, speaking English as the dominant household language, and changing attitudes and beliefs — “sometimes to the point where one may champion attitudes constructed to erase their own cultural identity.” 

Reverse Assimilation is Saldivar and Berrones’ attempt to locate themselves on that spectrum and then deconstruct it. 

“I see it as unlearning and decolonizing growing up in a society based on white supremacist beliefs,” says Saldivar. 

Herrera says that growing up in the Latinx community in a small town Illinois was “a world within a world.” 

“Then the next layer outside of that was conservative and white,” he says. 

A few months after migrating to the U.S., a classmate pointed out his huarache sandals. From that day forward he made a conscious decision to blend in. 

“All there was at school was Britney Spears — I loved it honestly because it was so different than what I was experiencing at home where we were watching Telemundo and Univision,” Herrera says. 

But also as a queer, undocumented, brown child with an almost-blasphemous name, it wasn’t safe to stand out. 

“There was a huge amount of uncertainty whenever a factory would get raided,” Herrera says. 

By the time he graduated from high school Herrera realized that even if he went into debt to get a college degree he still wouldn’t have the paperwork necessary for most jobs. 

“I felt like I couldn’t exercise my full humanity in the U.S.,” he says. 

Herrera decided to move back to Mexico in 2010 and was one of the 1.1 million Mexican nationals who returned voluntarily between 2010 and 2018. The term ‘voluntary returnee’ doesn’t convey the trauma of exile that many experience, though. 

Herrera couldn’t get a visa to enter the U.S. legally and see his family for eight years until he married his American husband. Together Herrera and his husband founded Les Jesus, a fashion brand based on traditional Mexican craftsmanship. 

“Our brand is a celebration of other colors, sexualities, queerness, possibilities,” Herrera says. 

Jesús Herrera modeling Les Jesus, a fashion brand based on traditional Mexican craftsmanship which he co-founded with his husband. Photo by Andres Navarro

It’s also a reflection of the plurality of his identity, which came after years of introspection and reverse assimilation, in large part due to gaining a green card and no longer having to hide his legal status. 

“Before that, I was trying to separate the two me’s — which me is Mexican? Which me is American? Then I realized they’re so entangled it doesn’t matter,” Herrera says.

Mexican slang colors the Reverse Assimilation conversations but the podcast is mostly in English. It’s a reflection of the audience Saldivar and Berrones hope to reach. 

“If we’re gonna talk about reverse assimilating, we have to have something to reverse from,” Berrones says. “Our spoken language first and foremost is an indication of our point of assimilation.” 

After living in the country, Saldivar and Berrones don’t believe returning to Mexico is essential to embracing their “Mexicanness.” Their intention now is to inspire conversations among their family and friends in the United States.

“I was always really conscious of wanting this to be for the Chicanx community,” Lisa says. Regardless if their audience identifies with that term or not, encouraging exploration of Chicanismo has become an unintended motivation for the duo.

The podcast is framed with archival audio and music collaged from a 1971 CBS report called Chicano, which discusses the Chicano movement protests in the 1960s and 1970s against police brutality.

As the artists worked on the podcast in the summer of 2020 it became a potent symbol of how much still hasn’t changed in the United States. 

The division Saldivar and Berrones discovered around the term Chicanx — which the Chicano Movement reclaimed from an ethnic slur to represent pride, empowerment and solidarity among the American children of Mexican immigrants who rejected cultural assimilation — represents barriers they’re working to overcome in order to fully embrace their identities. 

“Our parents’ generation saw it as this rebellion. A movement they didn’t want to associate with. They were trying to blend in and clear a path for their own version of success in American culture,” says Saldivar. 

“I didn’t know how to associate my name with the word Chicano and really embrace it before this project,” says Berrones. “In The Chicano Manifesto, one of the most poignant phrases is that Chicanismo is an enlightened state of mind.” 

That enlightenment is achieved through years of struggle, Sadivar says.

And it’s that internal struggle that Reverse Assimilation examines through community conversation. Someday soon, Saldivar and Berrones hope the project will evolve into an exhibition of visual art by Mexican-American artists working around the theme of bicultural identity.

For years, Saldivar has been obsessed with finding a way to visually represent the many ways that people experience the spectrum of reverse assimilation. “One of the things that has really resonated with me is the idea of it becoming more of a spiral rather than a linear spectrum. That you can be at two different points at the same time,” Saldivar says. 

For Herrera, the conversations about this were deeply healing. 

“On the podcast I was able to tap into things about my childhood that I hadn’t vocalized to anyone,” Herrera says.  “It was so liberating.”

Coronavirus Feature

For Cheaper COVID Treatment, Americans Travel to Mexico

Above: Ciudad Juárez, Mexico entrance as viewed from El Paso, Texas on Sept. 19, 2020. Colloquially known as “puente libre,” the Bridge of the Americas is Ciudad Juárez’s most used entrance from El Paso and it used by many Americans seeking cheaper COVID treatment in Mexico. Claudia Hernández/Borderless Magazine

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Waiting in line at the Cordova Bridge to cross from El Paso, Texas to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico and back is an everyday act for many Mexicans and Americans living along the Mexico-U.S. border. The bridge is often congested with cars as people wait up to four hours to cross to go to work, visit family, shop or see their doctor. 

Over 29 million people cross between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso every year, with people coming from as far as Chicago to visit Mexico. During the escalating coronavirus pandemic that has many experts concerned.

Neither the U.S. nor Mexico require any health checks in order to enter each other’s country at the border crossing. While for a time Mexican authorities were taking the temperatures of people who crossed the border in order to curb the spread of the virus, they no longer are doing so.

The Bridge of the Americas that connects the cities of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico on Sept. 19, 2020. Claudia Hernández/Borderless Magazine

Today, both El Paso and Ciudad Juárez are COVID-19 hotspots. Both cities are under lockdown and El Paso has the second highest COVID-19 infection rate in the United States. As of October 20, Ciudad Juárez has 10,043 active COVID-19 cases and 992 COVID-related deaths while El Paso has 8,350 active cases and 557 deaths.

To help slow the spread of the virus, the U.S. has restricted border access since March by barring non-U.S. citizens, non-permanent residents and people without a letter from their employer from crossing the border. They have also discouraged people who are allowed to cross from doing so in order to help slow the spread of the virus. On Monday, the head of Ciudad Juárez’s local government asked his country to work with the United States to bar non-Mexican citizens from crossing the border as well.

“Considering that El Paso is one of the cities with the highest number of infections in the entire United States, I am requesting the corresponding authorities to evaluate the restriction of North American visitors for non-essential matters,” Ciudad Juárez Municipal President Armando Cabada Alvídrez said.

Yet for many of the people most impacted by COVID-19 in El Paso crossing the border is a necessity. With health care costs dramatically different in the two countries, each day people from the United States wait hours to cross the border to get tested for COVID-19, purchase medicine or even get hospitalized. 

‘We all had COVID at the same time’

Valeria Terrazas is a 27-year-old American citizen who works in El Paso but lives in Ciudad Juárez with her parents. She works full-time and is in charge of getting groceries and other essential items for the household. When the border restrictions began earlier this year, Terrazas continued to cross between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso border to go to work.

On the morning of July 14 she woke up at her home in Ciudad Juárez feeling light-headed and decided to get a COVID-19 test in El Paso. Two days later her test results came back positive. 

Valeria Terrazas at her home on Sept. 26, 2020 in Ciudad Juárez, México. Claudia Hernández/Borderless Magazine

“I barely had any symptoms. I had a little bit of fever and a headache, but I just took some aspirins. The day I started to feel better is when I found out I had COVID. That same day I noticed I lost my sense of smell and taste,” Terrazas said. 

Terrazas self-isolated in her bedroom and continued working from home, but she feared her parents could get infected since they shared a home. Her father, Raul Terrazas, has thrombocytopenia and hypertension, which puts him at high risk for severe infection. Four days after Valeria started feeling sick, her parents began showing symptoms of COVID-19 as well. Her father was initially reluctant to get tested for the virus, but when he couldn’t continue his normal routine he agreed to take the test.

“We all had COVID at the same time. The bright side was that I no longer had to be isolated in my room because everybody else already had it as well,” Terrazas said. 

The family stayed at home and waited until they all tested negative for the virus, Terrazas said.

“My parents wanted to blame me because I was the one going out of the house. But then everyone [else in my family] started getting sick,” Terrazas said.  

Despite the stay-at-home order, Terrazas’ aunts, uncles and cousins who don’t live with her and her parents continued seeing each other. The CDC has warned family gatherings put people at increased risk of COVID-19 infection and such gatherings have driven a surge in COVID cases in places like Chicago.

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Terrazas’ extended family got together for a July 10 dinner party and three days later eight family members started showing symptoms. 

“It turns out I wasn’t the first one who got sick. My aunt was. And she was the one who got the worst symptoms,” Terrazas said. 

Eight people from the Terrazas family tested positive for COVID-19. Her aunt was hospitalized in Ciudad Juárez. Four of them were prescribed Jakavi, also known as Ruxolitinib, a drug typically used to treat high-risk myelofibrosis — an uncommon type of bone marrow cancer. The price for a dose of the drug in Mexico averages around $2,000 USD. 

“We were shocked because it is so expensive. Luckily I didn’t have to take any expensive medicines. I was so lucky,” Terrazas said.

A Borderless Magazine survey of health care providers and pharmacies in both El Paso and Ciudad Juárez found dramatic differences in health care costs between them. While people can get tested for COVID-19 in El Paso for free thanks to a city order, the same test just blocks to the south in Juárez costs between $60 to $200. 

And while a prescription-strength cough medicine like Benzonatate — which is frequently used to treat COVID-19 symptoms — costs an average of $9 in El Paso, it only costs an average of $5.60 in Ciudad Juárez, where it can be purchased over the counter.

Terrazas and her family bought all their medicine in Ciudad Juárez after they started comparing prices with what was available in El Paso. 

Valeria Terrazas, her mother María del Carmen Jáuregui, and father Raul Terrazas at their home on Sept. 26, 2020 in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. The family tested positive for COVID-19 at the same time and quarantined together at home. Claudia Hernández/Borderless Magazine

Two weeks later, Valeria’s COVID test came back negative and she was able to get back to work. She and her parents had mild symptoms, and the three of them were able to go back to their pre-COVID routine. 

“We were all very lucky. It was actually nice to stay at home together. We really bonded,” Terrazas said. 

‘It Is Hard Not Imagining The Worst’

Brenda Rubio, 23, is an American citizen who lives with her parents in El Paso where she also works as the front desk receptionist at a local pediatric dental clinic on Mesa Street. She contracted COVID-19 from her parents, Ana Moctezuma and Jorge Rubio, who in turn got it from a family member who visited their home. 

Rubio says her parents kept visiting family members despite the city’s stay-at-home order. 

“My mom was still a little bit skeptical about COVID-19, she kept going out of the house. I didn’t go out at all. But we live together so I would see her and my father every day,” Rubio said. 

Rubio’s mother was the first one to get sick. She had severe complications from the infection because she suffers from asthma. 

Rubio’s parents initially considered going to a hospital in Ciudad Juárez for cheaper COVID treatment. Mexican citizens enrolled in Ciudad Juárez’s public healthcare program can typically receive hospital treatment for free. Meanwhile, staying at a hospital in El Paso can cost an average of $4,000 per day. 

Despite the potential to save money, after some research Rubio realized the hospitals south of the border were overcrowded and decided it was probably best to seek treatment in El Paso. Her mother spent three days at the hospital and despite doctors releasing her to go home, she continued to get worse.

Brenda Rubio’s mother, Ana Moctezuma, on her way to the Hospital of Providence on May 12, 2020 in El Paso, Texas. Moctezuma had severe complications from COVID-19 because she suffers from asthma. Photo courtesy of Brenda Rubio

“My dad was the next one to get COVID. He was the one who was taking care of my mom at all times. He had fever for five days before he even considered going to the hospital,” Rubio said.

Rubio’s father was also hospitalized in El Paso and was there for five days. Doctors diagnosed him with both pneumonia and COVID-19.

“It is hard handling a situation like this one. It is hard not imagining the worst. When I drove my parents to the hospital I didn’t really know if it was the last time I would see them,” Rubio said. “I’ve heard so many stories about people who didn’t even have the chance to say goodbye to their loved ones. I was so scared.”

Rubio’s mother ended up spending three days in the hospital, while her father spent five days there. When they were released, they received a bill from the hospital for $2,500. 

“I was shocked, I thought we were going to have to pay way more. When we called and tried to pay, they told us we didn’t have to worry about it. It turns out the State of Texas paid the bill [through the CARES Act] because my parents were in the hospital due to COVID,” Rubio said.

Jorge Rubio arrives at the Hospital of Providence on May 21, 2020 in El Paso, Texas. Rubio was hospitalized in El Paso and stayed there for five days. Doctors diagnosed him with both pneumonia and COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Brenda Rubio

Once they were released from the hospital Rubio was the only one caring for her parents. They were quarantined for a month at home by orders from the El Paso Health Department. Health officials would check in every day on the family’s status.   

“We would order groceries on Walmart delivery and our friends would help us buy medicine,” Rubio said. 

The family’s El Paso doctors prescribed her parents some medicines like Benzonatate. Altogether, the medications the doctor prescribed for her parents ended up costing a total of $60. When these prescriptions ran out, Rubio sought cheaper COVID treatment in Mexico. She asked a friend to buy her the same medicines but in Ciudad Juárez so she wouldn’t have to pay the doctors in El Paso to get a prescription again. 

One week after her parents started feeling better on May 25, Rubio got COVID-19. 

“It was a good thing that I got it a few days later than my parents because they didn’t need me to take care of them anymore. It would have been awful for the three of us to be in bed at the same time,” she said. 

Rubio suffered from symptoms for six days, but she didn’t need to visit the hospital. 

Choosing Between a Healthy Life or Life Without Debt 

While this year has seen an increase in American patients seeking medical care in Mexico, the phenomenon didn’t start with the current coronavirus pandemic.

Jesús Rivera is a 64-year-old general practitioner in Ciudad Juárez. For four years he worked at a Benavides Pharmacy in Ciudad Juárez, where he treated many patients who came from the United States, including places like Chicago.

“A lot of them came not only from El Paso, but also from northern parts of the United States,” Rivera said. “The healthcare system in the United States is very overpriced and inefficient. I guess that’s why they cross the border to get medical assistance.”

Most of his American patients didn’t have medical insurance in the United States, and they came to him to get more affordable care. Rivera now works as a doctor at a factory, but he still receives calls from his former patients living in the United States asking for his help. 

“Our border life consists of purchasing certain things that are cheaper in the U.S., and other things in Mexico,” Rivera explained. “Medicine is definitely cheaper here [in Mexico]. Especially now with the pandemic, people are more desperate to save money.” 

Researchers have reported evidence that patented brand name medications in some other countries tend to be 28 to 42 percent cheaper than the ones being sold in the United States.

So while testing for COVID-19 is more expensive in Ciudad Juárez, a visit to a doctor can be up to ten times cheaper than in the U.S. And in addition to medicines costing less, many of them which are only available for purchase with a prescription in El Paso can be easily bought without one in Ciudad Juárez.  

But the rush of people seeking medicine without a doctor’s prescription in Mexico is causing other problems, according to a joint study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the University of Pennsylvania.

“In some cases, the ability to purchase brand name drugs without prescriptions may be causing inventories to be depleted in Juárez,” the study’s authors wrote. 

And cheaper COVID treatment is only the most recent cause of medical tourism to Ciudad Juárez. Out of 1,000 people interviewed from both sides of the border, over one-third of adult residents of El Paso reported crossing into Ciudad Juárez to buy medications, according to another study published by the Journal of the National Medical Association in 2009. 

A lack of access to health insurance in the United States was cited as one reason Americans cross into Mexico to buy medications and seek dental and other medical care, the authors wrote. 

Medical assistance is basically free in Mexico, and Americans take advantage of that.” Rivera said. 

Both Terrazas and Rubio were quarantined around the same time; Terrazas in Ciudad Juárez and Rubio in El Paso. A disease that could have cost them a fortune ended up being an affordable bill. But for Rivera, the fact that both women had to consider the price of healthcare at all while being sick with the coronavirus and caring for their families is heartbreaking.

“People shouldn’t have to choose between living a healthy life or a life without debt,” Rivera said. “I guess I wouldn’t have had as many patients if it wasn’t for the people who cross the border, but I can’t imagine what it must be like going through all that trouble just to be healthy. Mexico may not be the best country in many aspects, but at least people here have access to free healthcare.”


Editor’s note: All monetary amounts in this article are USD.

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Coronavirus Español Feature

Estadounidenses Continúan Cruzando a México Para Ahorrar en Gastos Médicos

Arriba: La entrada a Ciudad Juárez, México desde El Paso, Texas el 19 de septiembre de 2020. Comúnmente conocido como el “puente libre”, el Puente de las Américas es la entrada más concurrida de El Paso a Ciudad Juárez. Claudia Hernández/Borderless Magazine

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Esperar en la línea del Puente Córdova para cruzar de El Paso, Texas a Ciudad Juárez, México y viceversa es algo rutinario para muchos mexicanos y estadounidenses viviendo en la frontera. El puente a menudo está congestionado con automóviles. Las personas llegan a esperar hasta cuatro horas para poder cruzar e ir al trabajo, de compras, visitar familiares, o al doctor.

Cada año, alrededor de 29 millones de personas cruzan entre Ciudad Juárez y El Paso. Con gente que vienen de lugares tan lejos  como Chicago para visitar México. Ahora que la pandemia del coronavirus está al alza, esta situación tiene preocupados a muchos expertos.

Ni los Estados Unidos, ni México tienen ningún tipo de control de salud en los cruces fronterizos. Por un tiempo, las autoridades mexicanas tomaban la temperatura de la gente cruzando la frontera para prevenir el brote del virus. Sin embargo, ya no lo siguen haciendo.

El Puente de las Américas que conecta las ciudades de El Paso, Texas y Ciudad Juárez, México el 19 de septiembre de 2020. Claudia Hernández/Borderless Magazine

Hoy en día, tanto El Paso como Ciudad Juárez son puntos rojos de COVID-19. Ambas ciudades están implementando medidas sanitarias mientras El Paso tiene la segunda tasa más alta de infección por COVID-19 de los Estados Unidos. El 20 de Octubre, Ciudad Juárez alcanzó los 10,043 casos activos y 992 muertes relacionadas con COVID-19, mientras El Paso tuvo 8,350 casos activos y 557 muertes.

Para ayudar a frenar el contagio del virus, desde marzo la frontera ha sido restringida por parte de las autoridades estadounidenses. Esta restricción aplica a personas que no son ciudadanos americanos, residentes, y personas que no cuenten con alguna carta laboral que implique que pueden cruzar la frontera. También han disuadido a las personas a las que se les permite cruzar de hacerlo para ayudar a frenar la propagación del virus. El lunes, el presidente municipal de Ciudad Juárez le pidió a su país que trabajara con los Estados Unidos para prohibir que los ciudadanos no mexicanos crucen la frontera.

“Considerando que El Paso es una de las ciudades con mayor número de contagios en todo Estados Unidos, estoy solicitando a las autoridades correspondientes que evalúen la restricción de visitantes norteamericanos para asuntos no esenciales”, dijo Armando Cabada Alvídrez, presidente municipal de Ciudad Juárez.

Sin embargo, para muchas de las personas más afectadas por el COVID-19 en El Paso, cruzar la frontera es una necesidad. Con costos de atención médica drásticamente diferentes entre los dos países, cada día los estadounidenses duran horas cruzando la frontera para hacerse la prueba de COVID-19, comprar medicamentos o incluso ser hospitalizados.

‘Todos Tuvimos COVID al Mismo Tiempo’

Valeria Terrazas es una ciudadana americana de 27 años la cual trabaja en El Paso, pero vive con sus padres en Ciudad Juárez. Ella tiene un trabajo de tiempo completo y está a cargo de llevar el mandado y las cosas esenciales a su casa. Cuando las restricciones en la frontera comenzaron a principios del año, Terrazas continuó cruzando entre Ciudad Juárez y El Paso para ir a trabajar.

La mañana del 14 de julio se despertó en su casa en Ciudad Juárez sintiéndose mareada y decidió hacerse la prueba de COVID-19 en El Paso. Dos días después, los resultados de sus pruebas dieron positivo.

Valeria Terrazas en su casa en Ciudad Juárez, México el 26 de septiembre de 2020. Claudia Hernández/Borderless Magazine

“Casi no tuve síntomas. Tuve poquita fiebre y me dolió la cabeza, pero solo me tomé unas aspirinas. El día que me empecé a sentir mejor es cuando me enteré de que tenía COVID. Ese mismo día noté que perdí mi sentido del gusto y del olfato”, dijo Terrazas.

Terrazas se aisló en su habitación y siguió trabajando desde casa, pero temía que sus padres pudieran infectarse ya que viven juntos. Su padre, Raúl Terrazas, tiene trombocitopenia e hipertensión, lo que lo pone en alto riesgo de tener un caso grave. Cuatro días después de que Valeria comenzará a sentirse enferma, sus padres también comenzaron a mostrar síntomas de COVID-19. Su padre estaba renuente a hacerse la prueba del virus, pero cuando no pudo continuar con su rutina normal, accedió a hacerse la prueba.

“Todos tuvimos COVID al mismo tiempo. El lado positivo fue que ya no tuve que estar encerrada en mi cuarto porque ya todos lo teníamos”, dijo Terrazas.

La familia se quedó en casa y esperaron hasta que todos dieron negativo al virus, dijo Terrazas. 

“Mis padres querían echarme la culpa porque yo era la que salía de la casa. Pero luego todos [los demás miembros de mi familia] comenzaron a enfermarse”, dijo Terrazas.

A pesar de la orden de permanecer en casa, los tíos, tías y primos de Terrazas que no viven con ella y sus padres seguían viéndose. El CDC ha advertido que las reuniones familiares ponen a las personas en mayor riesgo contraer COVID-19, tales reuniones han provocado un aumento en los casos de COVID en lugares como Chicago.

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La familia de Terrazas se reunió para una cena el 10 de julio y tres días después, ocho miembros de la familia comenzaron a mostrar síntomas.

“Resulta que no fui la primera que se enfermó. Fue mi tía. Y ella fue la que tuvo los peores síntomas”, dijo Terrazas.

Ocho miembros de la familia Terrazas salieron positivos a COVID-19. Su tía fue hospitalizada en Ciudad Juárez. A cuatro de ellos les recetaron Jakavi, también conocido como Ruxolitinib, un medicamento que usualmente es usado para tratar la mielofibrosis de alto riesgo, un tipo de cáncer de médula ósea poco común. El precio de una dosis en México ronda entre los $2,000 USD.

“Nos sorprendió porque es muy caro. Por suerte no tuve que tomar medicinas caras. Tuve mucha suerte”, dijo Terrazas.

Una encuesta de Borderless Magazine entre proveedores de atención médica y farmacias tanto en El Paso como en Ciudad Juárez encontró diferencias drásticas en los costos de atención médica. Si bien las personas pueden hacerse la prueba de COVID-19 en El Paso de forma gratuita gracias a una orden de la ciudad, la misma prueba a solo unas cuadras al sur de Ciudad Juárez cuesta entre $60 y $200.

Y mientras que un medicamento para la tos con receta médica como el benzonatato, que se usa con frecuencia para tratar los síntomas del COVID-19, cuesta un promedio de $9 en El Paso, solo cuesta un promedio de $5.60 en Ciudad Juárez, donde se puede comprar sin receta.

Terrazas y su familia compraron todos sus medicamentos en Ciudad Juárez después de que empezaron a comparar los precios con los de El Paso.

Valeria Terrazas, su madre María del Carmen Jáuregui, y su padre Raúl Terrazas en su casa en Ciudad Juárez, México el 26 de septiembre de 2020. Su familia dio positivo a COVID-19 e hicieron su cuarentena al mismo tiempo. Claudia Hernández/Borderless Magazine

Dos semanas después, la prueba de COVID de Valeria resultó negativa y pudo volver al trabajo. Ella y sus padres tuvieron síntomas leves y los tres pudieron volver a su rutina pre-COVID.

“Todos tuvimos mucha suerte. De hecho, fue muy agradable estar juntos en casa. Realmente nos unió”, dijo Terrazas.

‘Es Difícil No Imaginarse Lo Peor’

Brenda Rubio, de 23 años, es una ciudadana estadounidense que vive con sus padres en El Paso, donde también trabaja como recepcionista en una clínica dental pediátrica local en Mesa Street. Ella contrajo COVID-19 de sus padres, Ana Moctezuma y Jorge Rubio, quienes a su vez lo contrajeron de un familiar que visitó su casa.

Rubio dice que sus padres siguieron visitando a sus familiares a pesar de la orden de la ciudad de quedarse en casa.

“Mi mama era un poco escéptica del COVID-19, seguía saliendo de la casa. Yo no salía para nada. Pero vivimos juntos y veía a mis papás a diario”, dijo Rubio.

La mama de rubio fue la primera en enfermarse. Ella tuvo muchas complicaciones porque sufre de asma.

Los padres de Rubio consideraron ir al hospital en Ciudad Juárez porque era más barato. Los ciudadanos mexicanos que son parte del programa de atención de salud pública califican para recibir atención médica gratuita. Mientras tanto, ir a un hospital en El Paso puede costar un promedio de $4,000 por día.

A pesar de la oportunidad de ahorrar dinero, después de algunas investigaciones, Rubio se dio cuenta de que los hospitales al sur de la frontera estaban saturados y decidió que probablemente era mejor quedarse en El Paso. Su madre pasó tres días en el hospital y, a pesar de que los médicos la dejaron ir a casa, siguió empeorando.

La madre de Brenda Rubio, Ana Moctezuma, en camino al Hospital de Providence el 12 de mayo de 2020 en El Paso, Texas. Moctezuma tuvo complicaciones graves de COVID-19 debido a que sufre de asma. Foto cortesía de Brenda Rubio

“El próximo que le dio COVID fue a mi papá. Él era el que estaba cuidando a mi mama a todas horas. Tuvo fiebre por cinco días antes de siquiera considerar ir al hospital”, dijo Rubio.

El padre de Rubio también fue hospitalizado en El Paso y estuvo ahí por cinco días. Los doctores lo diagnosticaron con neumonía y COVID-19.

“Es difícil tratar con una situación como esta. Es difícil no imaginarse lo peor. Cuando llevé a mis papás al hospital en verdad no sabía si era la última vez que los iba a ver”, dijo Rubio. “He escuchado tantas historias de personas que ni siquiera tuvieron la oportunidad de despedirse de sus seres queridos. Estaba muy asustada”.

La madre de Rubio estuvo en el hospital tres días, mientras su padre estuvo ahí por cinco días. Cuando fueron dados de alta, recibieron una factura del hospital de $2,500.

“Estaba en shock, creí que íbamos a tener que pagar más. Cuando marqué para intentar pagar, nos dijeron que no nos teníamos que preocupar por eso. Resulta que el estado de Texas pagó la cuenta [a través de la ley CARES] porque mis papás habían sido internados a causa del COVID”, dijo Rubio.

Jorge Rubio llega al Hospital de Providence en El Paso, Texas el 21 de mayo de 2020. Rubio fue hospitalizado en El Paso y estuvo internado por cinco días. Los doctores lo diagnosticaron con neumonía y COVID-19. Foto cortesía de Brenda Rubio

Una vez que fueron dados de alta, Rubio era la única cuidando de sus padres. Ellos estuvieron en cuarentena por un mes bajo las órdenes del Departamento de Salud de El Paso. Los funcionarios de salud verificaron el estado de la familia diariamente.

“Ordenamos mandado en la entrega a domicilio de Wal-Mart y nuestros amigos nos ayudaron a comprar la medicina”, dijo Rubio.

Los doctores de El Paso les recetaron a sus padres medicina como Benzonatato. Todo junto con las medicinas recetadas por los doctores les terminaron costando un total de $60. Cuando se les terminó la medicina, Rubio le pidió a un amigo que le comprara las medicinas en Ciudad Juárez para que no tuviera que pagar por otra receta médica. 

El 25 de mayo, una semana después de que sus padres comenzarán a sentirse mejor, Rubio contrajo COVID-19.

“Fue bueno que me dio unos días después que a mis papás porque ya no necesitaban que los cuidara. Hubiera sido horrible que los tres estuviéramos en cama al mismo tiempo”, dijo Rubio.

Rubio tuvo síntomas por seis días, pero no requirió ir al hospital.

Escoger entre vivir una vida sin enfermedades o una vida sin deudas

Si bien este año se ha visto un aumento en los pacientes estadounidenses que buscan atención médica en México, este fenómeno no comenzó con la actual pandemia de coronavirus.

Jesús Rivera es un médico general de 64 años que reside en Ciudad Juárez. El trabajó en una Farmacia Benavides por cuatro años, donde trató a muchos pacientes que venían de los Estados Unidos, incluyendo de lugares como Chicago.

“Muchos venían no solo de El Paso, también de otras partes más al norte de los Estados Unidos”, dijo Rivera. “El sistema médico en los Estados Unidos es muy caro e ineficiente. Creo que por eso cruzan la frontera para tratar sus enfermedades.”

La mayoría de sus pacientes estadounidenses no tenían seguro médico en los Estados Unidos, y lo visitaban para poder recibir atención médica accesible. Hoy en día, Rivera trabaja como médico en una fábrica, pero sigue recibiendo llamadas de sus pacientes estadounidenses pidiéndole consulta.

“Nuestra vida fronteriza consiste en comprar ciertas cosas que están más baratas en los Estados Unidos, y otras en México”, explicó Rivera. “La medicina definitivamente es más barata aquí [en México]. Especialmente ahora con la pandemia, la gente está desesperada intentando ahorrar dinero.”

Algunos investigadores han reportado evidencia de que los medicamentos de marca patentados en algunos otros países tienden a ser entre un 28 y un 42 por ciento más baratos que los que se venden en los Estados Unidos.

Entonces, si bien la prueba de COVID-19 es más costosa en Ciudad Juárez, una visita al médico puede ser hasta diez veces más barata que en los Estados Unidos. Y además de que los medicamentos cuestan menos, muchos de ellos solo están disponibles para comprar con receta en El Paso, mientras en Ciudad Juárez no la requieren. 

Pero la avalancha de personas que buscan medicamentos sin receta médica en México está causando otros problemas, según un estudio conjunto del Departamento de Salud y Servicios Humanos de Estados Unidos y la Universidad de Pensilvania.

 “En algunos casos, la posibilidad de comprar medicamentos de marca sin receta médica puede estar provocando que se agoten los inventarios en Juárez”, escribieron los autores del estudio. 

Y COVID-19 es solo la causa más reciente de turismo médico en Ciudad Juárez. De 1,000 personas entrevistadas de ambos lados de la frontera, más de un tercio de los residentes adultos de El Paso informaron haber cruzado a Ciudad Juárez para comprar medicamentos, según otro estudio publicado por el Journal of the National Medical Association en 2009.

La falta de acceso a un seguro médico en Estados Unidos fue citada como una de las razones por las que los estadounidenses cruzan a México para comprar medicamentos, buscar atención dental y de otro tipo, escribieron los autores.

“La asistencia médica es prácticamente gratis en México, y los gringos aprovechan eso”, dijo Rivera.

Tanto Terrazas como Rubio fueron puestas en cuarentena aproximadamente al mismo tiempo; Terrazas en Ciudad Juárez y Rubio en El Paso. Una enfermedad que podría haberles costado una fortuna terminó siendo una factura accesible. Pero para Rivera, el hecho de que ambas tuvieran que considerar el precio de la atención médica mientras estaban enfermas con el coronavirus y cuidaban a sus familiares es desgarrador.

“La gente no debería tener que escoger entre vivir una vida sin enfermedades o una vida sin deudas,” dijo Rivera.

“Creo que no hubiera tenido tantos pacientes si no fuera por la gente que cruza la frontera, pero no me puedo ni imaginar lo que es tener que batallar tanto para estar sano. Puede que México no sea el mejor país en muchos aspectos, pero al menos la gente de aquí tiene acceso a atención médica gratuita.”


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Coronavirus Español Essential Worker Feature Investigation

‘Solo queremos lo que nos merecemos’: Ex empleados de Strauss, una empacadora de carne, protestan por las condiciones de trabajo inseguras durante el COVID 

Arriba: Alrededor de 60 manifestantes se paran enfrente de la compañía de empaque de carne Strauss Brands, Inc. antes de marchar en Franklin, Wis. 7 de agosto de 2020. Francisco Velazquez/Borderless Magazine 

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La planta empacadora de carne de Strauss Brands, Inc. se encuentra a 20 minutos en auto del centro de Milwaukee. El primer turno llega a la medianoche y el segundo comienza al mediodía durante el día. Los trabajadores generalmente conducen a la planta empacadora de carne que se encuentra en 5129 Franklin Drive en Franklin, Wisconsin en camionetas y SUVs de color azul y gris, llevando su almuerzo en bolsas de plástico. 

En abril, seis empleados probaron positivo por COVID-19 y ex trabajadores alegan que Strauss puso en riesgo a toda su fuerza laboral al ignorar las precauciones de seguridad exigidas por el estado para ayudar a frenar la propagación del virus. 

Veintinueve empleados llenaron anónimamente quejas ante la Administración de Seguridad y Salud Ocupacional sobre las laxas medidas de seguridad de Strauss el 22 de abril. Estos mismos empleados alegan que fueron despedidos por Strauss el 23 de julio como retaliación. 

La Directora Ejecutiva de Voces de la Frontera Christine Neumann-Ortiz y ex empleada de Strauss Brands, Inc. Maria Vasquez, se dirigen a una multitud de manifestantes durante la Marcha de la Justicia para los Trabajadores Esenciales en Franklin, Wis. 7 de agosto de 2020. Francisco Velazquez/Borderless Magazine

Strauss afirma que los 29 empleados fueron despedidos porque su información de seguridad social no coincidía con otra documentación fiscal que tenían registrada para ellos, para el Servicio de Impuestos Internos.  

Strauss notificó a uno de sus trabajadores el 23 de julio que si no podían dar documentación de que estaban autorizados a trabajar legalmente o recibir documentos de autorización de trabajo en los próximos 30 días la compañía los despediría, según The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Sin embargo, algunos de estos empleados habían estado trabajando en Strauss durante al menos una década sin problema antes de ser despedidos en julio. 

“OSHA estaba entrevistando a trabajadores. Es por eso que vimos esto como una retaliación por exigir protecciones en el trabajo,” dijo Christine Neumann-Ortiz, Directora Ejecutiva de Voces de la Frontera. OSHA comenzó una investigación sobre violaciones de salud y seguridad el 2 de junio, según los registros de OSHA. 

Strauss se negó a hacer comentarios cuando Borderless Magazine preguntó sobre el momento de los despidos masivos y las acusaciones de trabajadores de que los empleados fueron despedidos como venganza por las quejas que presentaron. 

Esta no es la primera vez que Strauss ha sido acusado de ser un lugar inseguro para trabajar.

Compra aqui.

Strauss planeo mudarse al parque empresarial Century de Milwaukee, pero retiró la propuesta en octubre de 2019 después de que los vecinos y un miembro del Consejo Común de Milwaukee se opusieron al proyecto citando trabajos peligrosos que podrían provocar estrés postraumático entre sus preocupaciones, según The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Después de retirar la propuesta inicial del proyecto, la compañía revisó y volvió a presentar una nueva propuesta en abril de este año, con planes de iniciar construcción este otoño. 

En julio de 2017, OSHA multó a Strauss por $5,000 por una violación de salud y seguridad. Strauss se negó a comentar sobre esta violación. 

Danny Alvarado, uno de los 29 trabajadores que llenó quejas anónimas, se encuentra fuera de Strauss Brands, Inc. en Franklin, Wis. 7 de agosto de 2020. Francisco Velazquez/Borderless Magazine

Danny Alvardo, 36, había trabajado en Strauss por 17 años cuando la pandemia de coronavirus apareció. Él es uno de los 29 trabajadores que llenó las denuncias anónimas con la ayuda de Voces de la Frontera, un grupo de defensa comunitario que protege los derechos de los trabajadores, sobre la falta de medidas de seguridad para contener la propagación del COVID-19. 

Alvarado y sus compañeros de trabajo alegan que Strauss no siguió ninguna de las protecciones de los trabajadores recomendadas por el CDC y OSHA: como las llegadas y salidas de los trabajadores, la designación de los tiempos de descanso y sugiriendo que los trabajadores evitarán compartir coches para ir al trabajo y después de salir. 

Maria Vasquez, 41, es otra trabajadora que fue despedida por Strauss después de presentar quejas. Ella trabajó allí durante casi 13 años y fue la primera persona en probar positiva por el virus COVID-19 en la compañía en abril.  

Vasquez, una madre soltera de cuatro hijos, informó a la compañía que iba a hacerse la prueba el 21 de julio. La compañía, sin embargo, no le informó a sus compañeros de trabajo cuál que, los puso en riesgo de estar expuestos al virus. 

Vasquez explicó que su recuperación desde que contrajo el virus ha sido diferente y desafiante. Se ha recuperado lentamente en los últimos cuatro meses, pero todavía siente dolor del cuerpo y tiene dificultad para respirar. 

Maria Vasquez y su familia afuera de su casa en Milwaukee, Wis. 31 de agosto de 2020. Francisco Velazquez/Borderless Magazine

“Mi mayor temor eran mis hijos. ‘¿Qué iban hacer si yo moría?’ Estarían sin zapatos, sin comida y posiblemente peor,” ella dijo.

La compañía no le dio licencia para enfermedad pagada y ella continuó trabajando a pesar de que estaba infectada. La recuperación del virus se complica aún más por las lesiones de quemaduras, que sufrió en 2014 mientras empacaba carne de hamburguesa en una línea de montaje. 

Vasquez todavía tiene facturas acumuladas por las quemaduras anteriores y está luchando en contra de Strauss en un caso judicial, exigiendo que paguen sus facturas médicas.   

En Wisconsin, solo 8.8 por ciento de los casos confirmados de COVID-19 entre los trabajadores de cinco plantas de producción de carne fueron reportados en abril, según datos del CDC. Sin embargo, no está claro cuántos trabajadores en las compañías de procesamiento de carne y comida pueden haber sido infectados por el virus desde la última vez que se reportaron los datos en abril. 

En Milwaukee, los latinos hacen solo el 15.4 por ciento de la población pero tienen el mayor número de casos confirmados, con un estimado del 30 por ciento, según los datos dados por el tablero del COVID-19 en la página del Condado de Milwaukee, que se actualiza diariamente. 

Las órdenes del estado de Wisconsin han seguido de cerca la orden ejecutiva del presidente Donald Trump firmada en abril, que ordenó que las instalaciones de carne y aves de corral continuarán operando a pesar de las preocupaciones sobre el virus. 

Después de una protesta pública por los despidos, la unión negocio para que Strauss Brands ofreciera a los empleados despedidos un paquete de indemnización valorado en más de $264,000 el 6 de agosto.  

“Cuando [los empleados] se defienden, no es solo lo correcto, sino que es como si tu destino estuviera ligado unos a otros”, dijo Neumann-Ortiz. “Es por eso que animamos a la gente a hablar y poner una cara al movimiento. Cuando lo hacen, en realidad vemos el cambio.” 

Voces ha recibido 20 quejas de trabajadores de otras compañías de la planta en Briggs & Stratton y Echo Lakes Foods desde mediados de abril. Esas quejas incluyen preocupaciones físicas y de salud similares a las que se quejaron los empleados de Strauss. 

En Echo Lakes en Burlington, casi-abuelo, Juan Manuel Reyes Valdez había estado tratando activamente de obligar a la compañía a implementar estas guías cuando falleció.  

En Briggs & Stratton, Mike Jackson, de 45 años y padre de ocho hijos, había estado luchando activamente y dirigió una marcha con compañeros de trabajo antes de morir de COVID-19.

En ambos casos, la falta de días de enfermedad pagados los obligó a venir a trabajar mientras estaban enfermos. 

Racine Concejal Jennifer Levie durante la Marcha de la Justicia para Trabajadores Esenciales fuera de Strauss Brands, Inc. en Franklin, Wis. 7 de agosto de 2020. Francisco Velazquez/Borderless Magazine

Una protesta el 7 de agosto frente a la sede de Strauss también incluyó el apoyo de funcionarios electos y miembros de la junta escolar como los supervisores del condado de Milwaukee Steve Shea, Ryan Clancy, y Racine Concejal Jennifer Levie.

“Estoy aquí en solidaridad con estos trabajadores que están siendo tratados increíblemente injustamente. Nos llamó a todos a estar unidos en esta lucha para asegurar que sean justamente compensados,” dijo Levie, en la protesta. 

This story is a part of the Solving for Chicago collaborative effort by newsrooms to cover the workers deemed “essential” during COVID-19 and how the pandemic is reshaping work and employment.

It is a project of the Local Media Foundation with support from the Google News Initiative and the Solutions Journalism Network. The 19 partners span print, digital and broadcasting and include WBEZ, WTTW, the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Defender, La Raza, Shaw Media, Block Club Chicago, Borderless Magazine, the South Side Weekly, Injustice Watch, Austin Weekly News, Wednesday Journal, Forest Park Review, Riverside Brookfield Landmark, Windy City Times, the Hyde Park Herald, Inside Publications, Loop North News and Chicago Music Guide.

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Coronavirus Essential Worker Feature Investigation

‘We Just Want What We Deserve’: Former Strauss Meatpacking Employees Protest Unsafe Working Conditions During COVID 

Above: About 60 demonstrators stand in front of the Strauss Brands, Inc. meatpacking facility before marching in Franklin, Wis. Aug. 7, 2020. Francisco Velazquez/Borderless Magazine

Leer en español

Strauss Brands, Inc.’s meatpacking facility is located a 20 minute drive from downtown Milwaukee. The first shift comes in at midnight and the second begins at noon during the day. Workers typically drive to the meatpacking plant at 5129 Franklin Drive in Franklin, Wisconsin in blue and grey colored trucks and SUVs, carrying their lunch in plastic bags.  

In April six employees tested positive for COVID-19 and former workers allege Strauss put its entire workforce at risk by ignoring state mandated safety precautions to help slow the spread of the virus.

Twenty-nine employees anonymously filed complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration about Strauss’ lax safety measures on April 22. These same employees allege they were then fired by Strauss on July 23 as retaliation. 

Strauss claims the 29 employees were fired because their social security information did not match other tax documentation they had on file for them for the Internal Revenue Service. 

Strauss notified one of its workers on July 23 that if they could not provide documentation that they were authorized to work legally or receive work authorization documents in the next 30 days the company would fire them, according to The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Yet some of these employees had been working at Strauss for at least a decade without issue before they were fired in July.

Executive Director of Voces de la Frontera Christine Neumann-Ortiz and former Strauss Brands, Inc. meatpacking employee Maria Vasquez address a crowd of protestors during the Justice March for Essential Workers in Franklin, Wis. Aug. 7, 2020. Francisco Velazquez/Borderless Magazine

“OSHA was interviewing workers. That’s why we saw this as retaliation for demanding protections on the job, ” said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, Voces de la Frontera’s executive director. OSHA began an investigation into health and safety violations on June 2, 2020, according to OSHA records.

Strauss declined to comment when Borderless Magazine asked about the timing of the mass firings and the worker allegations that employees were terminated as retribution for the complaints they filed. 

This isn’t the first time Strauss has been accused of being an unsafe place to work. 

Purchase here.

Strauss planned to move to Milwaukee’s Century Business park but withdrew the proposal in October 2019 after neighbors and a Milwaukee Common Council member opposed the project citing dangerous jobs that could lead to post-traumatic stress disorder among their concerns, according to The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

After withdrawing the initial project proposal, the company revised and resubmitted a new proposal in April of this year, with plans of beginning construction this fall. 

In July 2017, OSHA fined Strauss for $5,000 for a health and safety violation. Strauss declined to comment on this violation. 

Danny Alvardo, one of the 29 workers who filed anonymous complaints, stands outside of Strauss Brands, Inc. in Franklin, Wis. Aug. 7, 2020. Francisco Velazquez/Borderless Magazine

Danny Alvarado, 36, had worked at Strauss for 17 years when the coronavirus pandemic struck. He’s one of the 29 workers who filed the anonymous complaints with the help of Voces de la Frontera, a community based advocacy group safeguarding worker’s rights, about the lack of safety measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

Alvarado and his coworkers allege Strauss did not follow  any of the worker protections recommended by the CDC or OSHA: like staggering workers’ arrivals and departures, designating break times and encouraging workers to avoid carpooling to and from work.

Maria Vasquez, 41, is another worker fired by Strauss after filing complaints. She’d worked there for nearly 13 years and was the first person to test positive for the COVID-19 virus at the facility in April. 

Vasquez, a single-mother of four, informed the company that she went to get tested on July 21. The company, however, did not inform her coworkers which put them at risk of being exposed to the virus. 

Vasquez explained her recovery since contracting the virus has been different and challenging. She has slowly recovered over the past four months but still experiences body pain and has difficulty breathing. 

Maria Vasquez and her family outside of their home in Milwaukee, Wis. Aug. 31, 2020. Francisco Velazquez/Borderless Magazine

“My biggest fear was my kids. ‘What were they going to do if I died?’ They would be without shoes, without food and possibly worse,” she said. 

The company did not give her paid sick leave and she continued working though she was infected. Recovering from the virus is further complicated by burn injuries she suffered in 2014 while packing hamburger meat on an assembly line.

Vasquez still has bills piled up from the previous burn injuries and is fighting an ongoing court case against Strauss demanding that they pay her medical bills. 

In Wisconsin, only 8.8 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases among workers in five meatpacking plants were reported in April, according to CDC data. However, it is unclear how many workers at meat and food processing facilities may have been infected by the virus since data was last reported in April. 

In Milwaukee, Latinos make-up only 15.4 percent of the population but make-up the largest number of confirmed cases, with an estimated 30 percent, according to data provided by the Milwaukee County COVID-19 dashboard, which is updated daily. 

Wisconsin state orders have closely followed President Donald Trump’s executive order signed in April which ordered meat and poultry facilities to continue operating despite concerns about the virus. 

After a public outcry over the firings their union negotiated for Strauss Brands to offer the fired employees a severance package worth over $264,000 on Aug. 6.  

“When [employees are] fighting back, it’s not just the correct thing to do, but it’s like your fate is tied to one another,” Neumann-Ortiz said. “That’s why we encourage people to speak out, and to put a face to the movement. When they do, we actually see change.”  

Voces has received 20 complaints from workers at other plant facilities in Briggs & Stratton and Echo Lakes Foods since mid-April. Those complaints include similar health and physical concerns to what the employees at Strauss complained about. 

At Echo Lakes in Burlington, grandfather-to-be, Juan Manuel Reyes Valdez had been actively trying to force the company to implement these guidelines when he passed away. 

At Briggs & Stratton, Mike Jackson, 45 and a father of eight, had been actively fighting and staged a walkout with co-workers before dying of COVID-19. 

In both cases, the lack of paid sick days forced them to come to work while sick.  

Racine Alderwoman Jennifer Levie during the Justice March for Essential Workers outside of Strauss Brands, Inc. in Franklin, Wis. Aug. 7, 2020. Francisco Velazquez/Borderless Magazine

An Aug. 7 protest in front of the Strauss headquarters also included support from elected officials and school board members like Milwaukee County Supervisors Steve Shea, Ryan Clancy, and Racine Alderwoman Jennifer Levie.

“I stand here in solidarity with these workers who are being treated incredibly unjustly. I call us to all stand together in this struggle to ensure that they are justly compensated,”Levie said, at the protest

This story is a part of the Solving for Chicago collaborative effort by newsrooms to cover the workers deemed “essential” during COVID-19 and how the pandemic is reshaping work and employment.

It is a project of the Local Media Foundation with support from the Google News Initiative and the Solutions Journalism Network. The 19 partners span print, digital and broadcasting and include WBEZ, WTTW, the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Defender, La Raza, Shaw Media, Block Club Chicago, Borderless Magazine, the South Side Weekly, Injustice Watch, Austin Weekly News, Wednesday Journal, Forest Park Review, Riverside Brookfield Landmark, Windy City Times, the Hyde Park Herald, Inside Publications, Loop North News and Chicago Music Guide.

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Urban farm provides sense of community for refugees during COVID

Above: Radishes at Global Garden Refugee Training Farm in Albany Park July 18, 2020 in Chicago Ill. Michelle Kanaar/Borderless Magazine

On a sunny Saturday morning in June, Beda Pradhan picked mint, green mustard and bok choy from her plot in the Global Garden Refugee Training Farm in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood. 

Pradhan is one of five refugee farmers who grow produce to both eat and sell on the one-acre urban farm on Chicago’s North Side. Farmers sell produce at local restaurants and farmer’s markets as well as through Global Garden’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. What Pradhan doesn’t sell, she keeps for her family, making dishes like gundruk — a classic Nepali fermented dish — with the leafy vegetables she harvests. 

For Pradhan, the farm is about more than just the food and extra income. It’s about a sense of belonging in a place far from home. The Bhutanese refugee came to Chicago in 2012 after living in a refugee camp in Nepal for most of her life. 

Manmaya Kalikoty chats with Beda Pradhan while picking their produce to sell at the farm stand across from the Global Garden Refugee Training Farm in Albany Park Aug. 8, 2020 in Chicago Ill. Michelle Kanaar/Borderless Magazine

“I like that I get to meet other community members and people from Bhutan,” Pradhan said. 

Since 2012, Global Garden has been a community space and a source of food and income for Pradhan and over 100 refugee families in the Chicago area. But the farm and its farmers are facing challenges this year with new city fees for water access as well as the closure of local restaurants and farmer’s markets due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

While farmers used to be able to tap into nearby fire hydrants for $5 per growing season, Chicago’s Department of Water Management is now requiring anyone who wants to open a hydrant to purchase a reduced pressure zone valve that prevents backflow into the water system. The new equipment is expensive: the valve plus installation and certification by a city inspector costs up to $1,700, or 340 times what water access cost to urban farms like Global Garden in past years.

“We are better situated to cover these new costs than many very small community gardens that operate without cash transactions,” says Global Garden’s executive director and founder Linda Seyler. “But it’s still a big financial burden for us.”

Moe Lan waters his family’s garden plot at Global Garden Refugee Training Farm in Albany Park July 18, 2020 in Chicago Ill. Michelle Kanaar/Borderless Magazine

Like most community gardens and urban farms, Global Gardens cannot afford to install a permanent water line to the farm, which can cost up to $40,000. While rain barrels, which capture rainwater for later use, are a cheaper alternative, they do not provide enough water alone for crops to survive this year’s record heat.

“This is really frustrating that the city tried to bring such a big change amid the pandemic,” said Shivana Shrestha, a volunteer at Global Garden. “All we want to do is garden for the handful of good months we get in Chicago and improve the health and wellness of our communities.” 

The increased water access costs come at a challenging time for the farm as many of the restaurants and farmer’s markets where farmers used to sell produce are closed or have reduced operations due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Mu Ku picks carrots for the CSA Global Garden Refugee Training Farm in Albany Park July 18, 2020 in Chicago Ill. Ku works the plot with her husband, sister, and brother. Michelle Kanaar/Borderless Magazine

In 2019, the farm’s five commercial farmers earned over $18,000 collectively in supplemental income through direct sales at a local farmer’s market, the farm’s CSA, and to the nearby Tre Kronor restaurant. Original plans for the farm’s 2020 season were to double or triple each farmer’s income over that of the previous year by selling at four weekly farmer’s markets, instead of just one, and by selling to more restaurants. 

Instead, the farm has shifted its focus to the CSA. At $375 a seasonal share, 58 community members, most living within walking distance of the farm, now receive paper grocery bags full of freshly picked produce weekly. Global Garden has also opened a farm stand across the street from the farm. Between the CSA and the farm stand, Seyler says that she expects the refugee farmers to be able to make at least the same amount of money as in 2019.

Shivana Shrestha (center) helps translate and bag produce for (from left) Beda Pradhan and Manmaya Kalikoty as they sell produce to Donna Schober and Beth Cole at the farm stand across from Global Garden Refugee Training Farm in Albany Park July 18, 2020 in Chicago Ill. Michelle Kanaar/Borderless Magazine

Shrestha, an immigrant from Nepal herself, helps man the farm stand and acts as translator for the refugee farmers, who often speak little English when they arrive in Chicago. She got involved in the farm while working as a research assistant focused on community gardens at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Field Museum. She says she loves Global Garden because of how closely it mirrors the farms in Nepal. 

“This garden is a space built for improved access to food and nutrition but community is vital here,” said Shrestha. “The farmers are so generous to everyone. It’s very much like a family.”

Global Garden Refugee Training Farm was founded in 2012 by Seyler and 37 refugee Burmese and Bhutanese families. They built the farm on a lot that had been vacant for over a decade. The farm was initially funded by a grant from the Federal Office of Refugee Resettlement and today relies on a mix of grants, individual donations and produce sales to stay afloat. Global Garden now feeds refugee families from countries as far-reaching as Burma, Bhutan, Somalia, and the D. R. of Congo. 

Illinois is home to over 120,000 refugees, with the majority of them living in the Chicago area. Refugees come to the United States through a government resettlement program after fleeing violence or war in their home country.

For Bhutanese farmer Manmaya Kalikoty, Global Garden reminds her of her life before she became a refugee.

Manmaya Kalikoty picks produce to sell at the farmstand across from Global Garden Refugee Training Farm in Albany Park Aug. 8, 2020 in Chicago Ill. Michelle Kanaar/Borderless Magazine

“I grew up in a village in Bhutan and always helped my mom farm. That’s why I always like to be with nature,” Kalikoty said.

Before coming to the United States, Kalikoty lived in the same Nepali refugee camp as Pradhan. While they didn’t know each other at the camp, the two have become close friends since coming to Chicago and working on the farm together. They live near each other on the city’s far North Side and sometimes take the bus down to the farm together. 

Like Pradhan, Kalikoty’s family — which now includes five children and four grandchildren — relies on the produce she grows in the farm to eat. Among her crops this year is amaranth, sweet peppers, eggplants and green beans. Over seven thousand miles away from Bhutan, Kalikoty is able to share with her family a taste of home.

“I have always been a farmer, I’ve always grown my own food,” said Kalikoty. This is what I know and what I like to do.”

Global Garden’s seasonal farm stand is open on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the corner of Lawrence and Manor. The farm accepts donations on their website.

This story is a part of the Solving for Chicago collaborative effort by newsrooms to cover the workers deemed “essential” during COVID-19 and how the pandemic is reshaping work and employment.

It is a project of the Local Media Foundation with support from the Google News Initiative and the Solutions Journalism Network. The 19 partners span print, digital and broadcasting and include WBEZ, WTTW, the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Defender, La Raza, Shaw Media, Block Club Chicago, Borderless Magazine, the South Side Weekly, Injustice Watch, Austin Weekly News, Wednesday Journal, Forest Park Review, Riverside Brookfield Landmark, Windy City Times, the Hyde Park Herald, Inside Publications, Loop North News and Chicago Music Guide.

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Feature Visas



Read in English.

当塔尔·德罗(Tal Dror)抽中了2020年美国移民签时,他觉得自己是世界上最幸运的人。






“我甚至没有备选方案,” 德罗说。 “我曾经那么确定我能移民成功。” 



多元化移民签证计划是美国前总统老布什(George HW Bush)在1990年颁布的《移民法》的一部分,旨在提高美国移民人口的多样性,吸引更多历史上移民率较低的国家的公民移民美国。也就是说,这个项目并不包含像中国印度这些在美国移民比例较高的国家。在2020年,中签人数最多的国家是埃及(5,568)、俄罗斯(5,118)、刚果民主共和国(4,743)和伊朗(4,101)。






特朗普在宣言中援引了疫情期间的失业率,并声称: 一旦永久居民被许可进入美国,就会立刻在各个领域与美国人竞争工作。”

但是美国移民委员会American Immigration Council)的政策总监乔治·豪尔赫(Jorge Loweree)认为特朗普的禁令缺乏“任何经济依据。” 




根据我们对每月移民签证签发统计数据的分析调查,在今年原定要发出的50,000份绿卡中,大约有37,000人在特朗普禁令下无法获得绿卡。 尽管他们仍可以再次申请抽签,但未必能被抽中。德罗今年再次提交了申请,却没有入选2021年名单。 



“针对多元化移民签证已成为特朗普政策中,白人至上主义议程的一部分,正义行动中心(Justice Action Center)的合作律师拉博尼·霍克(Laboni Hoq)说。

霍克将在今天被审理的多明哥·戈麦斯(Domingo Arreguin Gomez)诉讼案中代表绿卡中签者。霍克认为,尽管移民法赋予了总统一定的限制移民的权力,但特朗普颁发移民禁令的行为远远超出了该权力范畴。


法官阿米特·梅塔(Amit P. Mehta)将在今日审理霍克代理的诉讼,以及另一场更大的官司穆罕默德博士诉特朗普这两场诉讼均在今天美中时间中午12点开庭,观众可以在法院官网在线旁听。 

本月初, 伊利诺伊州检察长夸梅·拉乌尔(Kwame Raoul)与其它22个州的检察长一起提交了“庭之友”意见,公开支持戈麦斯诉讼案的原告。 






对于海蒂·梅尔曼德(Heidi Mehrmand)来说,推迟入境总比没有入境好。居住在加利福尼亚州的梅尔曼德今年45岁,是一名美国公民和呼吸治疗师。她本希望今年能够与妹妹莫日根(Mozhgan)一家人在美国团聚。 





“我完全不能工作,” 梅尔曼德含泪说道。“我的心都碎了。”


线上旁听今日庭审,美中时间中午12点,拨打877-848-7030, 访问密码3218747。详情请登录法院官网

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Feature Visas

Green Card Lottery Winners Challenge Trump’s Immigration Ban

Above: Tal Dror in Givatayim, Israel on Aug. 25, 2020. “The U.S. is one of the only places on earth where I don’t have to constantly hide my identity, my roots, my nationality and religion,” said Dror, who identifies as gay. Photo courtesy of Tal Dror


UPDATE 9/4/20: A D.C. federal judge on Friday partially blocked the Trump administration from barring foreign citizens who won green cards in the Diversity Visa lottery.

When Tal Dror won the 2020 lottery for a U.S. green card, he felt like the luckiest person in the world.

“The U.S. is one of the only places on earth where I don’t have to constantly hide my identity, my roots, my nationality and religion,” said Dror, who identifies as gay. 

Dror grew up in Ginaton, a small town in Israel, and works as a veterinarian in Givatayim, close to Tel Aviv. Gay marriage is illegal in Israel and discrimination against LGBTQ people is common. For the 31-year-old Dror, winning a spot in the United States’ Diversity Immigrant Visa program meant that he could make a new home in a country where he could freely express his sexual identity.

But Dror’s American dreams were crushed this year when President Donald Trump issued a series of immigration bans effectively keeping green card lottery winners from immigrating to the United States. 

Tal Dror pictured Aug. 23, 2020 at the clinic where he works as an associate veterinarian in Givatayim, Israel. Dror won the 2020 Diversity Immigrant Visa lottery for a U.S. green card. He must get a visa by September 30 to immigrate to the United States, but Trump’s executive orders have kept him from doing so. Photo courtesy of Tal Dror

“I didn’t even have a Plan B,” Tal said. “I was so sure it’s going to work out.” 

Today, lawsuits filed by Dror and other U.S. permanent resident card lottery winners will go before a judge in the District Court for the District of Columbia. The judge will hear the plaintiff’s motions for a preliminary injunction and a temporary restraining order, which could allow Dror and others to receive their visas despite the ban.


The Diversity Immigration Visa program was established as part of The Immigration Act of 1990 under President George H. W. Bush with the goal of diversifying the immigrant population in the United States. The program’s lottery received applications from more than 14 million applicants in 2020 and chose almost 83,900 winners from countries with historically low rates of immigration to the United States. Winners can apply for green cards, which provide permanent residency in the U.S and a pathway to citizenship. Ultimately, up to 50,000 of those winners will receive green cards in a given year.

In 2020, the largest number of visa winners came from Egypt (5,568), Russia (5,118), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (4,743), and Iran (4,101). 

President Trump has long criticized the visa program claiming that it let in some very bad people who take the jobs of US citizens. To qualify for a green card visa, applicants must have received at least a high school degree and prove they can support themselves, have no criminal background and are in good health. Many of the winners are highly educated but lack opportunities in their home countries.

In April, Trump issued a proclamation to temporarily pause almost all immigration, including the Diversity Immigrant Visa program, in a bid to protect American workers during the coronavirus pandemic. 

“It would be wrong and unjust for Americans laid off by the virus to be replaced with new immigrant labor flown in from abroad,” Trump said in April. “We must first take care of the American worker.”

In June, Trump extended the April order through the end of 2020. The bans mark the first time the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program has been interrupted in its three-decade history.

The proclamation cites record unemployment level statistics and states that, “Lawful permanent residents, once admitted, are granted “open-market” employment authorization documents, allowing them immediate eligibility to compete for almost any job, in any sector of the economy.”

But Jorge Loweree, policy director at the American Immigration Council, says the ban lacks “any meaningful economic analysis to substantiate its claims.” 

Many economists suggest that immigrants do not take jobs from Americans, nor do they lower their wages. Rather, the influx of immigrants helps increase overall hiring for the U.S. economy.

Some argue that immigrants arriving through the green card lottery program act as a “pull factor,” encouraging more high-skilled immigrants especially from those underrepresented communities. Research also found that greater diversity among immigrants raises the wages of people who were born in the United States. 

Those who won the Diversity Immigrant Visa lottery in 2020 need to be granted visas by September 30 in order to immigrate to the United States. However, the State Department isn’t processing any visas, both due to the ban and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

About 37,000 out of the 50,000 lottery winners may not be able to finish the process before this year’s deadline of September 30, according to our analysis of the monthly immigrant visa issuance statistics. While this year’s winners could apply again, there is no guarantee that they would be selected in future years. Dror, who had reapplied for this year, didn’t make the 2021 list. 


The lawsuits going before the District Court today claim that Trump’s immigrant ban is “arbitrary and capricious.”

“Targeting the diversity visa has been a part of Trump’s larger white supremacist agenda in his policies,” said Laboni Hoq, cooperating attorney with Justice Action Center.

Hoq is representing green card lottery winners in Domingo Arreguin Gomez v. Donald J. Trump, one of the two lawsuits being heard today. She argues that Trump acted outside his authority as president in banning immigration to this extent. While the Immigration and Nationality Act gives some power to the president to limit immigration, Hoq says that the ban goes far beyond that power.

“Congress is the one to have the authority to create immigration laws,” Hoq said. “They created a complex system of laws over the course of decades, and the scale to which the president is trying to bypass them is unprecedented. We believe each piece of this proclamation is successfully challengeable.”

Judge Amit P. Mehta will hear plaintiffs’ motions for a preliminary injunction and a temporary restraining order for both Hoq’s lawsuit and a second, larger lawsuit, Dr. Mohammed v. Trump, today at noon CST. Viewers can access the court proceeding virtually on the D.C District Court website.

Earlier this month, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, along with the attorneys generals from 22 states, filed an amicus curiae brief in support of the plaintiffs in Gomez. 

“Immigrants work in roles that are essential to supporting states’ economies during the coronavirus pandemic and beyond,” Raoul said in a statement. “I will continue to oppose the federal government’s anti-immigrant policies that hurt families, our communities and states’ economies.”

Hoq hopes the court today will at least require the government to process the visas that are in limbo. Once issued, these visas are valid for six months. 

“It wouldn’t be ideal, but if the ban is not enjoined immediately, the alternative relief we are seeking to force visa processing could allow plaintiffs to wait until next year and come to the U.S. in a delayed fashion,” said Hoq. 


Heidi Mehrmand’s 14-year-old nephew, Benyamin, in Tehran, Iran. Benyamin has Crohn’s disease. Photo courtesy of Heidi Mehrmand

For Heidi Mehrmand, a delayed entry is better than no entry at all. The 45-year-old U.S. citizen and respiratory therapist lives in California and was hoping to be reunited with her sister, Mozhgan, and her brother-in-law and 14-year-old nephew in the United States this year. 

Her sister’s family live in Tehran, Iran and her nephew, Benyamin, has Crohn’s disease, which can have severe or fatal complications if not treated properly. Mehrmand believed he would have a better life in the United States where medications to treat Crohn’s disease are much easier to get than where he lives.

Mehrmand helped Mozhgan apply for the Diversity Immigrant Visa program and she won the green card lottery. She had an interview scheduled at the U.S. embassy in Abu Dhabi on April 1, but the government postponed the interview indefinitely. 

When Mehrmand learned of Trump’s immigration ban, she cried for days.

Mehrmand continues to worry about her sister’s family from her home in Irvine, California. Until she is reunited with them, she cannot sleep easy. 

“I can’t work,” Mehrmand said, through tears. “My heart is broken.”

To listen to the court hearing live today at noon CST, call 877-848-7030, access code: 3218747. Find more information here.

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Coronavirus Español Feature

Desde las fincas cafeteras de El Salvador hasta las tierras lecheras de Wisconsin 

Arriba: Diseños de azulejos de Fernando LLort, un artista salvadoreño y ex-miembro de la banda de los años 70 La Banda del Sol, en Finca Coffee el 4 de julio de 2020 en Madison, Wis. Según LLort, los azulejos reflejan representaciones coloridas e infantiles de El Salvador. Francisco Velazquez/Borderless Magazine

Read in English.

Finca Coffee está ubicado en un nuevo complejo de apartamentos en el lado sur de Madison, Wisconsin. 

Las paredes bañadas por el sol de la cafeteria de un ano, están llenas de color y cubiertas con azulejos diseñados por Fernando LLort, un artista Salvadoreño y ex-miembro de la banda de los anos 70 La Banda del Sol. 

El café está diseñado para evocar la sensación moderna de una cafetería que se puede encontrar caminando por las calles de San Salvador, El Salvador. 

Sentado en la estantería cerca de un tocadiscos hay una escultura de vidrio del pájaro nacional de El Salvador, el torogoz, con sus plumas de doble cola. 

Pero un año después de la primera apertura del café, como muchos otros negocios, está luchando debido a la pandemia del coronavirus que continúa hoy. La copropietaria Marleni De Valle está detrás de la encimera índigo de la cocina haciendo una de sus famosas pupusas cuando Borderless visita para conversar. 

Co-propietarios Silas Valle y Marleni Valle 4 de julio en 2020 en Madison, Wis. Francisco Velazquez/Borderless Magazine

“Son más que simples tortillas hechas a mano rellenas de ingredientes. Son la receta de mi madre,” dijo Marleni De Valle. “Me siento feliz de poder compartir ese auténtico sabor salvadoreño. Las recetas de cocina de mi madre son sagradas. Son secretos culinarios.” 

Las pupusas, que se consideran el plato nacional de El Salvador, son más que simples tortillas hechas a mano rellenas de ingredientes, dice Marleni De Valle. Son su plato estrella y los empaca con queso, frijoles o carne, o una mezcla de los tres. 

Marleni De Valle quiere expandir el café y abrir lugares en otras partes del Medio Oeste, incluyendo Chicago. También le gustaría traer a su madre a Wisconsin desde El Salvador para poder visitar el café y ver a los clientes disfrutando de sus famosas pupusas. Pero muchos de esos planes están suspendidos debido a la incertidumbre de cuando terminara la pandemia. 

Las quesadillas salvadoreñas se hacen frescas todos los días por la co-propietaria Marleni Valle en Finca Coffee del 5 de julio de 2020 en Madison, Wis.. Francisco Velazquez/Borderless Magazine

Finca es uno de los pocos restaurantes salvadoreños en el área de Madison. Sus clientes son una mezcla de inmigrantes salvadoreños, así como personas que pueden no estar familiarizados con la cocina del país centroamericano. 

“Me alegra ver que las personas comen algo y dicen ‘Wow, me gusta,’” dijo Marleni De Valle. 

Marleni De Valle se enorgullece de la calidad de la comida y las bebidas de su café. Ella y su esposo, Silas De Valle, y su gerente general, Todd Allbaugh, obtienen cuidadosamente cada ingrediente. 

Por ejemplo, antes de la pandemia, los De Valle compraban granos de café directamente de los agricultores en El Salvador como una forma de ayudar a los medios de vida de los recolectores de café, que bastante veces son mujeres, dijo Allbaugh. Es un trabajo de labor intensivo que requiere que los cosechadores escalen los lados de las montañas para llegar a los pallos de café y luego llevando bolsas pesadas de granos de café sobre sus hombros.

Todd Allbaugh, gerente general de Finca Coffee, 5 de julio de 2020 en Madison, Wis. Allbaugh trabaja con agricultores directamente en El Salvador para supervisar la importación de granos de café. Francisco Velazquez/Borderless Magazine

“Al [comprar de los agricultores], eliminados al comprador de en medio que la mayoría de las empresas usan,” dijo Allbaugh. “Pagamos un precio más alto por libra, de esta manera ayudamos a crear al menos cinco empleos allí.” 

Sin embargo, el negocio se ha visto afectado durante la actual pandemia de COVID-19. Finca Coffee estuvo completamente cerrado desde el 23 de marzo hasta el 27 de mayo y solo se ha vuelto a abrir a finales de mayo para recoger pedidos y comer al aire libre. Sin embargo, el negocio solo obtuvo la mitad de sus ganancias regulares a través de estas ventas. El café también ha tenido problemas para obtener sus granos de café de El Salvador ya que el virus se ha extendido por todo el mundo y la pareja ha tenido que buscar granos de café en otros lugares. 

El origen de Finca tiene sus raíces en una amistad iniciada hace casi 30 años después de que Silas De Valle recibió por primera vez una beca de USAID para asistir a la Universidad de Wisconsin en Richland. En 1989 dejó su hogar en Metapan, El Salvador — una ciudad fronteriza a 7.5 millas de Guatemala — y llegó a la casa de su primera familia anfitriona. Se quedó por seis meses. Después de que Silas De Valle conoció a Allbaugh, se hicieron amigos íntimos y el paso el resto de sus estudios viviendo con los padres de su futuro gerente general. 

Las quesadillas mexicanas hechas por Marleni Valle son uno de los cuatro artículos destacados en el menú de Finca Coffee, el 5 de julio de 2020 en Madison, Eis. La salsa verde y roja están elaboradas a partir de la receta de su familia. Francisco Velazquez/Borderless Magazine

Cuando Silas De Valle fue a visitar El Salvador en el invierno de 1991, Allbaugh se unió a él. El país estaba en medio de una guerra civil de 12 años y Allbaugh describió el viaje como un “momento de despertar,” para él. 

“Baje durante Navidad y me di cuenta de que no necesitas un árbol de Navidad. No necesitas un gran espectáculo. Solo gente que te ama incondicionalmente y un clima hermoso,” dijo Allbaugh. Desde entonces ha regresado a El Salvador casi 40 veces.  

Silas De Valle regreso a El Salvador en 1993 y tuvo una carrera de 21 años en finanzas para organizaciones como Hanes y UW-Madison.

Durante ese tiempo, Marleni y Silas De Valle también abrió una pequeña empresa de publicidad que continúan operando. 

Cuando la pareja regresó a Wisconsin en 2017, querían abrir un café con Allbaugh. Para julio de 2019, Finca abrió sus puertas al público. 

“Las cosas fueron excelentes,” dijo Silas De Valle. “Vendimos más de lo que teníamos. El espacio estaba lleno y nuestros nuevos clientes nos recomendaban a sus amigos. Pensamos que el sueño era alcanzar el equilibrio, y lo hicimos.” 

Finca Coffee ubicada en el lado sur de Madison, Wis en el complejo de apartamentos Alexander Company, 4 de julio de 2020. Francisco Velazquez/Borderless Magazine

Ahora el café se está adaptando a la nueva normalidad de las cenas y las máscaras sociales distanciadas. Sin embargo, clientes como Denise Benitez agradecen que Finca Coffee siga abierto a pesar de los nuevos desafíos que enfrenta. 

“Es mi paz en estos tiempos agitados,” dijo Benitez.

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Coronavirus Feature

From the coffee farms of El Salvador to the dairy lands of Wisconsin

Above: Tile designs by Fernando LLort, a Salvadoran artist and former member of the ‘70s band La Banda del Sol, at Finca Coffee July 4, 2020 in Madison, Wis. According to LLort, the tiles reflect colorful, childlike representations of El Salvador. Francisco Velazquez/Borderless Magazine

Leer en español.

Finca Coffee is tucked into a new apartment complex on the south side of Madison, Wisconsin. 

The one-year-old cafe’s sun-soaked walls are bursting with color and covered with tiles designed by Fernando LLort, a Salvadoran artist and former member of the ‘70s band La Banda del Sol.

Finca means “farm” in Spanish and the cafe is designed to evoke the hip feel of a cafetería that could be found walking the streets of San Salvador, El Salvador.

Sitting on the bookshelf near a record player is a glass sculpture of El Salvador’s national bird, the torogoz, with its double tail feathers. 

But a year after first opening the cafe, like so many other businesses, is struggling due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Co-owner Marleni De Valle is behind the kitchen’s indigo countertop making one of her famous pupusas when Borderless stops by to chat.

Co-owners Silas Valle and Marleni Valle July 4, 2020 in Madison, Wis. Francisco Velazquez/Borderless Magazine

“They are more than just handmade tortillas stuffed with ingredients, “They are my mother’s recipe,” Marleni De Valle said. “I feel happy being able to share that authentic Salvadoran flavor. My mother’s kitchen recipes are sacred. They’re culinary secrets.”

Pupusas, which are considered El Salvador’s national dish, are more than just handmade tortillas stuffed with ingredients, Marleni De Valle says. They’re her signature dish and she packs them with cheese, beans, or meat, or a mix of the three. 

Marleni De Valle wants to expand the cafe and open locations elsewhere in the Midwest, including Chicago. She’d also like to bring her mother to Wisconsin from El Salvador so that she could visit the cafe and see customers enjoying her famous pupusas. But many of those plans are on hold due to the uncertainty of when the pandemic will be over. 

Salvadoran Quesadillas are made fresh every day by co-owner Marleni Valle at Finca Coffee July 5, 2020 in Madison, Wis. Francisco Velazquez/Borderless Magazine

Finca is one of only a handful of Salvadoran restaurants in the Madison area. Its customers are a mix of Salvadoran immigrants as well as people who may be unfamiliar with the Central American country’s cuisine.

“It makes me happy to see that people eat something and they’re like ‘Wow, I like this,’” said Marleni De Valle. 

Marleni De Valle prides herself on the quality of her cafe’s food and drinks. She and her husband, Silas De Valle, and their general manager, Todd Allbaugh, carefully source each ingredient.

For instance,  before the pandemic the De Valles bought their cafe’s beans directly from farmers in El Salvador as a way to help support the livelihoods of coffee pickers, who are often women, said Allbaugh. It’s a labor intensive job requiring harvesters to climb steep hillsides to get to the coffee trees and then carrying heavy bags of beans over their shoulders.  

Todd Allbaugh, Finca Coffee’s general manager, July 5, 2020 in Madison, Wis. Allbaugh works with farmers directly in El Salvador to oversee the import of coffee beans. Francisco Velazquez/Borderless Magazine

“By [buying from farmers], we cut out the middle person buyer that most companies use,” Allbaugh said. “We pay a higher price per pound, this way we help create at least five jobs down there.”

However the business has taken a hit during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Finca Coffee was completely closed from March 23 until May 27 and only reopened at the end of May for pick-up orders and outdoor dining. The business only made half their regular earnings via these sales. The cafe has also struggled to source its coffee beans from El Salvador since the virus has spread across the globe more and the couple have had to look elsewhere for coffee beans.

Finca’s origin has its roots in a friendship sparked nearly over 30 years ago after Silas De Valle first received a USAID scholarship to attend University of Wisconsin in Richland. In 1989 he left his home in Metapan, El Salvador — a border town 7.5 miles from Guatemala — and arrived at the home of his first host family. He stayed for six months. After Silas De Valle met Allbaugh they became close friends and he spent the remainder of his studies living with his future general manager’s parents. 

Mexican Quesadillas made by Marleni Valle are one of four featured items on the menu at Finca Coffee, July 5, 2020 in Madison Wis. The green and red sauce are crafted from her family’s recipe. Francisco Velazquez/Borderless Magazine

When Silas De Valle went to visit El Salvador in the winter of 1991 Allbaugh joined him. The country was in the midst of a 12 year civil war and Allbaugh called the trip an “awakening moment” for himself. 

“I went down during Christmas and realized that you don’t need a Christmas tree. You don’t need a big deal. Just people that love you unconditionally and some beautiful weather,” Allbaugh said. He has since returned to El Salvador nearly 40 times.

Silas De Valle returned to El Salvador in 1993 and had a 21 year career in finance for organizations including Hanes and UW-Madison.   

During that time Marleni and Silas De Valle also launched a small advertising company which they continue to operate.

When the couple moved back to Wisconsin in 2017 they wanted to open a cafe with Allbaugh. By July 2019 Finca opened its doors to the public.

“Things were excellent,” said Silas De Valle. “We sold more than we had. The space was full and our new customers were recommending us to their friends. We thought the dream was to break even, and we did.”

Finca Coffee located on the southside of Madison, Wis. in the Alexander Company Apartment Complex July 4, 2020. Francisco Velazquez/Borderless Magazine

Now the cafe is adapting to the new normal of social distanced dining and face masks. Yet customers like Denise Benitez are thankful Finca Coffee remains open despite the new challenges it faces.

“It’s my bit of peace in these hectic times,” said Benitez.

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