EDINBURG — Salvadro Guadarrama and his mom learned how to use a sewing machine by watching YouTube videos a couple of months ago — all in an effort to fulfill the 16-year-old’s goal of delivering 500 masks to farmworkers in Texas and California.
“They’re the ones that deliver the food to our tables,” the 16-year-old said Tuesday in San Juan. “(They’re) the ones that provide fresh resources for us to eat.”
Salvador and his mother, Nancy Ortiz, live in Richards, Texas, an unincorporated community northwest of Houston, but their desire to help farmworkers brought them to the Rio Grande Valley.
A few months ago, when the novel coronavirus began to spread, Salvador decided he wanted to donate 500 masks to essential workers out on the fields, many of whom did not receive help from the federal government because of their legal status.
“They’re our culture,” Salvador said about the predominantly Hispanic community. “We have to help them out.”
So he and his mom bought a sewing machine and turned to the internet for help.
“We didn’t know anything about this, so we watched YouTube videos,” he said about learning to sew. “That’s how I learned and I taught my mom how to use a sewing machine.”
Then, they used their own funds to buy materials, though some donations were also received.
“You can only buy 10 yards per person, so me and my mom would both go separately and buy the most cloth we could to make the most masks,” Salvador said.
Once done, they hopped on a bus headed for the Rio Grande Valley and partnered with La Unión Del Pueblo Entero, a community-based nonprofit, to distribute 250 masks.
Shortly before 10 a.m. Tuesday, a group of about 100 LUPE members met at the nonprofit’s headquarters in San Juan to deliver the goods.
They formed a caravan of about 60 cars and drove slowly for about an hour, making sure no one was left behind. The vehicles snaked along a dirt road in rural Edinburg for several miles before reaching a group of about 60 farmworkers harvesting watermelons in Edinburg.
LUPE members, sporting their traditional red T-shirts, honked as they arrived, greeting workers with warm smiles and holding posters bearing words of encouragement.
“He came on the bus from Houston to give out masks. He made them,” a LUPE organizer shouted into a megaphone as Salvador personally handed out the masks. “We want you to use them to protect yourselves and each other. No one else is going to protect you.”
Little by little, workers started to line up, waiting for their masks. They had been working since 7 a.m. and it was nearly noon.
“Thank you for supporting us because at the dollar stores, the grocery stores, there’s no more,” 25-year-old Joaquin Gonzalez said. “They’re already gone. And really, they’re expensive — $10 to $15. Unfortunately, we can’t all pay for them.”
And while working with a mask can make triple-digit heat feel suffocating, workers were glad to have them.
“We use what we can — a cloth, a shirt, something that’ll cover us — firstly to protect from the illness and the other to cover us from the sun,” said 35-year-old Esther Rojas. “Sometimes we do feel sick, but it’s because of the heat. So we take a quick break and start again.”
Rojas said the virus and the subsequent stay-at-home orders that were issued, interfered with their work. Some days, there was no work at all, and other days, the hours were cut short.
“Right now, with these days that just passed with this illness, we also suffered because we don’t get any help from the government,” she said. “We have to figure out how we’re going to eat and pay for our bills.”
Isabel Ramirez, 19, said she’s heard similar stories from a number of workers who help her family’s watermelon-harvesting business stay afloat.
“I’ve seen that a lot of people can’t get the stimulus checks and they’re the ones it’s affecting more, in my opinion,” she said.
Ramirez said her family was worried about this year’s watermelon season as restaurants remained closed and people stayed away from grocery stores.
“We thought the watermelon wasn’t going to sell, it wasn’t going to have a good price,” she said.
However, the economy began to open up just as the harvesting season began in early May, dealing her family and the workers they employ a lucky draw.
“It wasn’t like years before, but it helped us out,” she said.