New York migrants make masks after job loss

By Jorge Fuentelsaz

New York, Apr 26 (efe-epa).- María Abeja shows Maribel Torres how to make the folds in a face mask she is crafting, the last one in a string of thousands they have made since losing their cleaning jobs a month ago as a result of the New York lockdown.

The women work from their homes, but meet twice a week at La Colmena community centre in Staten Island to organize the operation and sell masks in batches of three for $15.

“We found ourselves in need of protecting ourselves from the quarantine and we had this opportunity to make masks, and because we were a trained group, the four us, Sofía, Maribel and Benita, decided to organize ourselves,” Abeja, 60, tells Efe while working on her Singer machine.

Raised by her grandmother in Mexico, Abeja lives with her husband, her son, her daughter-in-law and her grandchildren. She says has always been fascinated by sewing machines.

“I like it, I’m excited I will sit down and grab my machine, transform any piece of fabric into a dress, into a blouse, I love it, but I don’t have time because my fundamental base is to clean the houses.”

MakerSpace donated the fabrics which come in all shades and patterns, as well as two sewing machines.

The coronavirus pandemic has claimed tens of thousands of cleaning, construction, and restaurant jobs, many of them done by Latinos.

But Abeja is grateful she can now earn a living doing what she loves the most, sewing and helping others.

“That is our job, trying to help the people who are out there, whoever they are. Throughout my life I have always looked upon other as equals, I have no issues with racism and offer my hand to fellow brothers/sisters, ” says Abeja, who as an undocumented migrant is not entitled to any unemployment aid to offset the ravages of the coronavirus.

Abeja emigrated to New York from Mexico City 20 years ago. Before leaving she taught women how to sew to become financially independent.

“I have seen how women are abused by men and men abuse us and we just stoop our head thinking: ‘I can’t do anything, where can I go if I don’t know how to do anything’.”

“When I came here to the US, I came with a purpose, to raise money to buy machines and teach people to work on machines. Unfortunately, my plans did not come to fruition because, being here, I forgot what I had come for.”

Her colleague Torres, also from Mexico, has lived on Staten Island for 15 years. She says that although she can work a sewing machine the one who really knows the ropes is Abeja.

Before the pandemic struck “we were focused on supporting each other cleaning houses and offices and teaching our colleagues what their rights are,” Torres adds.

But everything changed when on 22 March New York went into lockdown and the foursome got to work on the new initiative.

They were already working together in a female empowerment group, Mujeres Liderando, which made coordinating with La Colmena NGO easier.

The project is going so well they have hired a delivery person to take the masks to people’s homes.

Torres’ son is a construction worker who is unemployed, as is her husband who worked at a restaurant before the crisis.

She says sewing masks “is what saves us”.

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