By Matthew Rodriguez

Pasadena Weekly Deputy Editor

Essential workers had two choices during the pandemic: stay at home and not get paid or expose themselves to COVID-19 to make ends meet.

“If they stay home, then they wouldn’t be able to eat, pay rent, buy medicine, etc.,” said Pablo Alvardo, executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. “The only choice they had was to go out to work.”

Without essential workers, the grocery stores wouldn’t be stocked, the lights wouldn’t have stayed on and our packages wouldn’t be delivered. Because of their constant contact with others, many essential workers had a higher chance of death after contracting COVID-19. According to a study by researchers at UCSF, food and agriculture workers faced the highest increase in mortality at 39%, compared to 22% for working-age adults.

“Our organization lost at least 500 members across the country,” Alvarado said. “For many people, it’s just numbers, but for us, they’re our friends, brothers, sisters [and] spouses.

Recently, on Workers Memorial Day, the network staked 600 crosses in Villa Parke to honor the nearly 600,000 people, including essential workers, who died during the pandemic. Each of the crosses bore a name of an essential worker who died during the pandemic.

“We should all come together to honor their legacy and what they did for all of us,” Alvarado said.

Gordofredo Rivera, 69

Born in Oaxaca, Mexico, Gordofredo Rivera’s father repaired musical instruments. At age 10, he learned how to play the many instruments that surrounded him.

“He played 12 instruments to perfection,” said Alvarado, who was in the band, Los Jornaleros del Norte, with Rivera. The name translates to the Day Laborers of the North.

“He’s been a member of the band for about 15 years. He was the only one who knew how to read and write music.”

Rivera came to America after losing his job in 1994. He worked as a day laborer before he was hired at a dry cleaner, working in the back cleaning clothes.

“He worked Monday through Saturday,” said Rivera’s grandson, Irving Garcia. “He would wake up at 4 a.m. [and] get home at 6 [or] 7 p.m. [He’d work] in extreme heat all the time. Sometimes he’d come back with burns on his hands.”

Without his father in his life, Garcia turned to his grandfather for a father figure.

“He was the world to me,” said Garcia. “He was my inspiration. He was my father figure.”

When the pandemic arrived in the United States, Rivera didn’t have the luxury of working from home and returned to the dry cleaners. Like the many people stocking grocery shelves or picking crops in the fields, Rivera had to choose between his health or livelihood. With a grandson going to college, Rivera continued to work.

“I wouldn’t be going to college without, he paid for a lot of things,” said Garcia.

During the winter surge in January, Rivera and his family contracted COVID-19. At first, the family didn’t realize they contracted with the novel coronavirus. They thought it was food poisoning. When Rivera’s breathing shallowed and his oxygen saturation level dropped to 59%, the family realized it was far worse than food poisoning.

Rivera spent three weeks in the ICU before dying.

“It hurts knowing that it wasn’t supposed to happen. It could’ve been avoided,” said Garcia as he held tears back. “It didn’t have to happen. I’m heartbroken. It hurts.”

Antonio Bernabe, 60

By all accounts, Antonio “Tony” Bernabe was one of the kindest people.

“He’s truly one of the kindest people that I’ve ever known,” said the network’s general counsel, Chris Newman. “Among the thousands of people that he worked with you will never find someone who would speak a bad word about Tony.”

As a former day laborer, Bernabe fought for immigrant rights for more than two decades. As the director of organizing for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, he created and worked with the network.

“He was always ready to help others,” said national project coordinator Loyda Alvarado. “As an immigrant himself, I feel that he understood the struggles of our undocumented brothers and sisters. It’s a shame that he died without getting his documents.”

After immigrating from Guanajuato, Mexico, in 1990, Bernabe soon learned of the struggles many day laborers experienced. He began to advocate for his fellow workers by joining the coalition where he met Alvarado.

“He helped workers collect unpaid wages. He helped families prevent deportations,” said Alvarado. “There wasn’t anything he could not fix, [whether it] was conflicts between workers, conflicts with employers [or] conflicts with police officers, the man could do everything.”

After a long battle with COVID-19, Bernabe died on Jan. 20.

“He really was one of a kind,” Newman said. “You don’t meet people like Tony very often in life.”

Survivor’s guilt

After contracting COVID-19 in the winter, Alvarado thought he was going to die. His entire brain was swollen, he could barely breathe, let alone sleep. Against all odds, he survived. While his brain was still swollen, he was grateful he was alive.

“I’m grateful that I made it,” said Alvarado. “Every day, I feel the pain that comes back. It always comes back… I get these headaches every day, they are subsiding little by little, but every day is a reminder that I made it.”

After months of recovery, he still couldn’t shake the feeling of guilt that he survived, while so many others, including his dear friends, Rivera and Bernabe, didn’t.

“There is not a day I don’t think of them,” Alvarado said as he cried on a park bench within earshot of the crosses of Rivera and Bernabe. “Sometimes I ask, why them? [Why] am I a survivor? There is not a day that I don’t remember Tony and Don Gordofredo.”