Pedro Cruz Mendoza was born in Oaxaca and came to the Central Valley in 1988. His wife and their son joined him 8 years later. He spent 21 years working in the fields.
“He was very hard working,” said Claudia Medina, Cruz Mendoza’s wife. “He never missed a day of work - never.”
He’d go to work even when he was sick, she said. They’re undocumented and as low-wage workers, couldn’t afford to take a day off. But when Medina started feeling sick in late February, she said she immediately told her boss at the small restaurant where she worked. She self-isolated in their second bedroom of their Lemoore mobile home.
She told Cruz Mendoza she might have COVID-19. He brushed it off, she said. He didn’t believe the virus was real. But she took it seriously, knowing her husband was older and therefore more at-risk of developing complications from COVID-19.
“When he would leave for work, I would leave the room to make myself something to eat and then I would throw bleach on everything, I’d clean.” she said. “I was scared and always thinking of him.”
Overtime Medina’s health improved. But a few days later, she noticed Cruz Mendoza had developed a dry cough. She said she begged him to get tested for COVID-19.
“He told me, ‘oh, my back is hurting,’ and I told him it was his lungs and we needed to take him to the doctor but he said ‘no,’” she said.
He continued to go to work in the fields for four days.
‘Financially vulnerable’ immigrants continue working during pandemic
Latino immigrants have been hit especially hard by the coronavirus pandemic. That’s especially true in Kings County, where there was a 90% increase in deaths among Latino immigrants between 2019 and 2020, according to a data analysis by UC Merced.
The Migration Policy Institute estimates there are 11,000 undocumented people in Kings County, and nearly all are from Mexico or Central America. Like Cruz Mendoza, many of them work in the food and agriculture sector, an industry hit hard by the pandemic. And they don’t qualify for unemployment or federal stimulus checks.
All of that helps explain why the Central Valley’s Latino immigrants have suffered during the pandemic, said Ana Padilla, executive director of the UC Merced Community and Labor Center.
“It leaves them financially vulnerable, where they have really no choice but to continue working in certain conditions and despite their own health,” Padilla said.
Cruz Mendoza remained wary of getting medical attention even as his condition worsened. Eventually, Medina took him to the clinic where he tested positive for COVID-19. A day later, she said, she decided to take him to the county’s only hospital.
“They told me ‘he has very little oxygen in his lungs and his pulse is very low,” she said. “They weren’t sure what was going to happen.”
On March 28th, after 20 days in the hospital, Pedro Cruz Mendoza passed away, leaving behind his wife, only son and two grandchildren.
Among California counties with significant Latino populations, Kings County had the second-highest increase in deaths among Latino immigrants during 2020. Only Imperial County, along the California-Mexico border, had a higher increase in Latino immigrant deaths last year--a 97.5% increase.
Son: ‘It does exist and it is real’
Family and friends met at the Phipps Dale Funeral Chapel in Lemoore on April 9 to say their goodbyes to Cruz Mendoza. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, only 25 people were allowed in at a time. Groups of people gathered outside the chapel, waiting for their turn.
Inside, a local musician sang of love and departure. Cruz Mendoza laid in his casket wearing his Cruz Azul soccer jersey and his favorite beanie.
“I said, ‘I’m going to dress him the way he dressed here,’” Medina said.
Cruz Mendoza’s family had no money for the burial. Despite working in the Valley’s fields for two decades, he had only earned enough to put food on the table and pay his bills.
But his daughter-in-law started a GoFundMe account; his son put on a car wash; his son’s mother-in-law dropped off donation boxes at stores in the area; and a friend loaned the family $5,000 dollars.
All together, they came up with the $14,000 they needed to pay for his funeral expenses.
“A lot of people came by to ask what we needed, to let us know they were with us,” she said.
Besides their immediate family and a sister in Bakersfield, Medina said they didn’t have any biological relatives in the Valley. Still, Cruz Mendoza had many friends.
“A lot of people loved him, a lot of people, ” she said. “When this happened they’d come and say 'tell me this isn’t true.' And how I wish I could tell them it wasn’t.”
Medina said many people in the Latino undocumented community don’t take COVID-19 seriously until it hits them personally. Their son, Juan, admits before the death of his father, he was one of those people.
“I would wear my mask and put hand sanitizer, but still I would say it’s a mental thing,” he said. “But now that I’ve seen that, once you live it yourself, it does exist and it is real.”
Now Medina and her son say they’re figuring out how to live life without Pedro Cruz Mendoza. And Medina says she will have to figure out a way to pay for his medical bills when they arrive.
This story is part of the Central Valley News Collaborative, which is supported by the Central Valley Community Foundation with technology and training support by Microsoft Corp.