A Day Laborer Who Dreamed Of Returning Home To Mexico Dies Of COVID-19

Dec 11, 2020
Originally published on December 14, 2020 6:27 am

Most mornings, Paulino Ramos sat under the small tree at the entrance of a busy Home Depot parking lot near Downtown Los Angeles. Other day laborers hanging around on the corner knew they could find their friend there, waiting in the shade for construction jobs. But in early September, they noticed Ramos, the sturdily built demolition worker, looked weak.

"He lost a lot of weight and he looked sad," says Fernando Sanchez, a day laborer whose main trade is roofing. He stares at the ground as he talks about Ramos. "I think when someone thinks they're going to die, they know; they can feel it."

On the morning of September 7, Labor Day, Ramos was sitting in his spot under the tree with his head down, hunched over in pain. One worker thought Ramos was having a heart attack.

"He was saying, 'I have pain in my chest,' and he couldn't breathe," says Jorge Nicolás, organizer of the Central American Resource Center of Los Angeles (CARECEN) Day Labor Center, located on the Home Depot parking lot. "One of the workers here took him to the ER. And after that, we never saw him again."

Ramos, a low-wage day laborer desperate to earn a paycheck, became one of the more than 290,000 people who have died from COVID-19 in the United States. The coronavirus pandemic has hit the country's Latino population especially hard. In Los Angeles County, Latinos make up 51% of COVID-19 deaths, according to the LA Department of Public Health.

Ramos was 53. He was alone here in the U.S.; he lived apart from his family in Mexico for many years. He often told Nicolás that he was eager to return home to the state of Puebla to be with his wife and three kids, and his grandkids that he'd never met.

He died shortly after he was brought to the ER.

"He was a loving father, a loving husband, and he always tried to provide for his family," says Nicolás. "That's the reason he came [to the U.S.], to be able to provide a better opportunity for his kids."

Ramos' story reflects the reality of day laborers on the edge of poverty in this pandemic. The once-abundant construction jobs available in this parking lot have all but dried up since March, and Ramos could no longer afford to pay his rent. Before he died, he received a $300 grant from CARECEN and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network to assist with basic expenses. In a video he recorded for the organizations' donors, Ramos said: "I am grateful I got help, so at least I can eat."

Inside the tiny, open-air CARECEN Day Labor Center, which provides economic programs for day laborers, workers constructed a makeshift memorial to honor Ramos. There's a small table with now-wilted flowers, prayer candles and photos. A black-and-white image shows Ramos in the hospital bed, hooked-up to machines and tubes as he battled COVID-19. But the color photograph the workers pinned above the memorial reminds them of the man they all knew: A quiet friend with graying black hair, a mustache and a little smile.

Ramos, 53, spent over a decade working demolition jobs across LA. He supported his wife and children in Mexico, and dreamed of one day returning home.
Danny Hajek / NPR

There's worry at this corner of the parking lot that workers like Ramos are more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19. Ramos spent over a decade working demolition jobs across LA, where he risked exposure to hazardous materials like asbestos, mold and concrete dust.

"There are strong chemicals in the old buildings we work in," says Jesús Monge, one of the workers standing outside The Home Depot. Monge's been a painter since arriving in the U.S. from El Salvador in 1981. "A lot of workers here have damaged their lungs, including me."

Employers are required to provide protective equipment at job sites, but Monge says they rarely do. Even in a pandemic, he says day laborers often go without PPE because workers can't afford the expense.

Employers don't offer health insurance, and day laborers don't have access to sick pay. There's pressure to show up to work, even if an individual is overcome by symptoms of COVID-19, like Ramos experienced. And like many day laborers at this parking lot, Ramos was undocumented.

Mario Guerra, a welder waiting on the corner, says he wonders if he'll suffer the same fate as his friend. "I don't know if I'll ever go home to El Salvador or if I'll die here," he says. "I want to see my mom and my daughter but — that's life."

Paulino Ramos dreamed of returning home, too. Last week, his remains were sent back to his family in Mexico.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Now we have the story of a man who lived in the margins struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic. There's a Home Depot parking lot west of downtown Los Angeles. Day laborers line up on the corner waiting for construction jobs. Until recently, there was a man who always sat under a small tree on the sidewalk. His name was Paulino Ramos. This was kind of his spot waiting in the shade for jobs. But Ramos isn't here anymore. The last time anyone here saw him, he was sitting under that tree with his head down. Something was wrong with him.

JORGE NICOLAS: So he was sitting there waiting for jobs. But he was like, I have pain in my chest, and he wasn't able to breathe.

KING: Jorge Nicolas works at the Central American Resource Center of LA. He's the organizer at that day labor center, and he knew Ramos.

NICOLAS: So one of the workers here took him to the ER. And after that, we never saw him again.

KING: Paulino Ramos is one of more than 290,000 people who have died from COVID-19 in the United States. He was 53 years old. He was a day laborer desperate to earn a paycheck in the middle of this pandemic. NPR's Danny Hajek spoke to some of the workers who remember their friend.

DANNY HAJEK, BYLINE: A roofer named Fernando Sanchez waits for jobs along the busy corner this morning. He and Paulino Ramos used to wait out here together reminiscing about their lives in Mexico.

FERNANDO SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

HAJEK: "I saw him a few days before he went to the hospital," Sanchez says. He stares at the ground as he talks about his friend.

SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

HAJEK: "He looked really thin. He lost a lot of weight," he says. "He looked sad. I think when someone thinks they're going to die, they know it. They can just feel it."

SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

HAJEK: Sanchez is standing near a makeshift memorial for Ramos. Workers set up a small table with flowers and prayer candles that can be seen from the street. The flowers are wilted now. Jorge Nicolas, the organizer at the day labor center, says workers here don't normally share their feelings, but their friend's death has changed that.

NICOLAS: They cannot even believe it because they didn't even say goodbye. He just passed away with no one by his side.

HAJEK: Behind the flowers, there's a black-and-white picture. It's Ramos in a hospital bed, hooked up to machines and tubes as he battled COVID-19. But the color photo the workers pinned above the memorial reminds them of the Paulino Ramos they all knew - a quiet man with graying black hair, a mustache and a little smile. Ramos was alone here in the U.S. It had been years since he'd seen his family back in Mexico, his wife and three kids and grandkids he'd never met.

NICOLAS: He was a loving father, a loving husband, and he always tried to provide for his family. That's the reason he came here, to be able to provide a better opportunity for his kids.

HAJEK: Nicolas says Ramos worked demolition jobs across LA for over a decade around hazardous materials like asbestos and mold and concrete dust. That makes workers like Ramos more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19.

JESUS MONGE: (Speaking Spanish).

HAJEK: "There are strong chemicals in the old buildings we work in," says Jesus Monge. He's one of the older workers waiting on the corner here. He's been a painter since the '80s.

MONGE: (Speaking Spanish).

HAJEK: "A lot of workers here have damaged their lungs," he says, "including me."

MONGE: (Speaking Spanish).

HAJEK: All these stories are a reality for day laborers. Most employers don't provide protective equipment. They don't provide health insurance either. Day laborers don't get sick pay, and many workers like Ramos are undocumented. Mario Guerra is a welder from El Salvador. He's been apart from his family, too. And as he stands in this parking lot, he wonders if he'll suffer the same fate as Ramos.

MARIO GUERRA: (Speaking Spanish).

HAJEK: "I don't know if I'll ever go home to El Salvador or if I'll die here," he says. "I want to see my mom and my daughter. But that's life."

GUERRA: (Speaking Spanish).

HAJEK: A life already hard made even harder. Since the pandemic shutdowns in March, work in this parking lot has dried up, and Ramos could no longer pay his rent. He did find a little help. He received a $300 grant from the Central American Resource Center of LA and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. For Ramos, it was a lifeline. He recorded this video to thank the donors.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

PAULINO RAMOS: (Speaking Spanish).

HAJEK: This is Ramos' voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

RAMOS: (Speaking Spanish).

HAJEK: "I got money for food and rent," he says. "I'm grateful I got help so at least I can eat. I'll try to make it last."

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

RAMOS: (Speaking Spanish).

HAJEK: Jorge Nicolas, the organizer at the day labor center, says he can still hear Ramos' deep voice. They talked a lot about family. Ramos dreamed of returning home so he could finally meet his grandkids.

NICOLAS: He used to get very nostalgic when he talk about coming back to Mexico to his family. You know, I saw him crying because I had two little ones so he used to tell me, like, spend time with your little ones, as much as you can. I'm sorry. Pay attention to your kids, you know? Spend time with you kids

HAJEK: Last week, Paulino Ramos' remains were sent back to his family in Mexico.

Danny Hajek, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEIL COWLEY AND BEN LUKAS BOYSEN'S "SOLITARY REFINEMENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.