Being undocumented during the pandemic: "I feel we have no voice"

Anastasia lives in the Bronx and cleans homes for a living. The pandemic has magnified her struggles

Published August 17, 2020 6:59PM (EDT)

A pair of maracas and a medical face mask, placed on a window sill (Illustration by Ilana Lidagoster/Salon)
A pair of maracas and a medical face mask, placed on a window sill (Illustration by Ilana Lidagoster/Salon)

This is an excerpt from the Unheard Voices of the Pandemic series from Voice of Witness. Interview and editing by Dao X. Tran, managing editor at Voice of Witness. Translation provided by Selma Marks.

Anastasia, 42, is originally from Ayutla, a small town in Puebla, Mexico, and has lived in Mott Haven, a bustling neighborhood in the South Bronx, since 1995. A single mom of two teenagers, she was working as a housecleaner, mostly in homes in downtown Manhattan, before the COVID-19 outbreak brought her work to an abrupt halt. We talked in May to hear about how the pandemic has affected her and her family. Anastasia's name was changed to protect her identity.

* * *

I'm Anastasia. I live with my two children. My son is going to be 19 years old. He's graduating high school. My daughter is going to be 17 years old. She's in the 11th grade. Both kids are very good students, really good kids.

I'm from Mexico. We live in the Bronx, in an apartment building. In my neighborhood, there are many Mexican, many Central American, immigrants who don't have documents. There are millions of us who contribute to this country without having any status here. But we work extremely hard. We do any kind of work we can find. We clean homes, we babysit, we work in restaurants, in delis. We do any work we're able to do because we don't want to be a burden. We want to contribute to this country. I want people to know that we're human beings, that we might have very little, but we contribute to the well-being of this country.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, my normal day was to go work on the subway. I was cleaning homes downtown. At the end of the day, I'd come back, be with my children, help them do homework, prepare dinner, go to sleep, and get ready for the next day. I worked for different people each day, in total, five homes. And I'd go to each house every two weeks. I also worked cleaning a small independent school in East Harlem on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

I started hearing about coronavirus in early March. Then people started to die, and the school my kids go to closed. And that's when I stopped working. It was March 13. The people I was working for, they told me, "The virus has become very dangerous." They had to protect their families, and I had to protect mine. At the beginning, they told me that it would only be for two weeks, that the virus was spreading. But then, as you know, the time just went on. With two of my employers, I haven't had any contact. The other three have expressed concern about what's happening to my family. They asked, "How can we help?" They told me not to worry, that they would help me during those two weeks. They've continued to support me and I'm very grateful.

I haven't been able to get everything we need, but I've been able to get the basics. I've managed to keep a roof over my head and my children's heads, and I've been able to provide them and myself with food. During a typical day now, I'm at home with my kids. We cook together. In the morning, we'll either have a sandwich or eggs with toast, you know, a light meal. And then later on in the afternoon, we make a lunch that's more of a meal, a real meal. We do chores together at home. They do their homework too because they have school also. So I've been spending more time with them and that's the one nice aspect of what's been happening. I truly cherish that I'm able to spend full days with my kids. I'm very grateful that the three of us are in good health, that we are taking care of each other, staying here at home together.

But I'm concerned about what's going to happen, when I'll be able to go back to work. I might be able to go back to work cleaning the homes of those three people who've been helping me, but I haven't heard anything from the other two. And I don't know when or if the school that I was cleaning will open again. So I really don't know.

We have a friend of the family who died. He was sick for three weeks in the hospital. That had a tremendous impact on us, it really made us realize how serious this was, how dangerous this virus was. That's when we decided to stay at home and only go out to the store to buy the necessities. And to be protected with everything we could get a hold of — face masks, gloves, whatever else.

In the neighborhood, the silence is now so noticeable. The streets are empty. I go to the window along with some of my neighbors to applaud the medical workers at seven o'clock each evening. I shake my maracas to thank all those people who've been working so hard to keep people alive. Only five or six of my neighbors are willing to go to their windows. The fact that so few people are willing even to risk that means that there has really been an enormous change.

The neighbors, we used to talk with each other. Now we cannot do that. Before I'd walk on the street, find someone I know, and hug and chat with them. We'd laugh with each other, shake hands with each other. Now no hugs. No handshaking. Not even a minimum of conversation. Everyone is just rushing home. Everything has become about disinfecting, disinfecting yourself.

I miss my routine, going out to work. I miss the feeling of being able to do something for myself, for my children, to be able to support them. I miss meeting my neighbors and friends on the train and talking to them about their children, my children, whether they're leaving work early or not. I miss the contact, the day-to-day conversation. It's like I'm all alone. That I have to be alone. The door has to stay closed. I'm afraid.

Sometimes I wish my extended family was nearby. I really feel the need to see my mother because all of this. It's so terrible. I'm so afraid. I need a hug, my mother's hug. But she's far away. She's in Mexico and it's been many years since I last saw her. Thankfully, our town is far away from the city so she's pretty safe. It's not that I'm pessimistic, but I keep thinking that if I end up dying of this, I'm going to die without having gotten a hug from my mother.

I feel we have no voice, undocumented people. I didn't come here to take anything away from anybody else. We just want to be able to live. I want to have the opportunity to be accepted here, to have status. People want us to go back to our country, but they don't understand that it's very difficult for us to just take our stuff and go back. Our children grew up here, they speak this language here. We have roots here now. They don't even know the family that I left behind. It's very difficult. I can't just bring them back to an unknown place.

We work and we pay taxes based on the money that we earn. But we don't receive any economic aid from the government. We're not able to qualify for anything. I need economic aid from the government during this time. Many people like myself depend on charity, on the goodness of people. But basically we're at their mercy—it's the only way in which we've been able to survive.

By Anastasia Bravo

Anastasia’s name was changed to protect her identity.

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