Emilia Gonzalez Avalos shares a moment with her father, Emilio. Credit: Emilia Gonzalez Avalos

Just two weeks after she finished leading the biggest Latino voter turnout initiative in the state for a Minneapolis-based community organization, a family crisis struck Emilia Gonzalez Avalos. 

Last Tuesday, Gonzalez Avalos’s uncle called with news that her father, Emilio Gonzalez, wasn’t well and needed help. She drove to his home in Richfield and found him struggling to breathe and unable to walk on his own.

“I thought he probably had COVID,” said Gonzalez Avalos, 39, who is executive director of Unidos MN and a full-time student at the University of St. Thomas, finishing up her undergrad degree. 

Alone, Gonzalez Avalos helped move her 65-year-old father—who is 6-foot-10 and 270 pounds—into her car and drove him to Hennepin County Medical Center. 

Emilio hadn’t yet taken a COVID-19 test when he arrived at the hospital, but doctors already knew what was wrong with him.

“They told us he had COVID lungs,” Gonzalez Avalos said. “His oxygen levels were dangerously low.” 

Emilio is originally from Mexico and has lived in Minnesota since 1992. His brother filed a petition in 2001 for Emilio to gain citizenship, and he’s been waiting for a resolution since then, Gonzalez Avalos said. He doesn’t have health insurance. 

Emilio’s experience reflects how the virus spreads sneakily and rapidly, devastating Latino communities in particular. A report released this week by the Minnesota Council on Latino Affairs reports an infection rate that’s nearly five times higher than the state’s white population. Chief among the reasons: Many Latinos work in crowded, shoulder-to-shoulder factory settings packing meat, canning goods, and packaging materials, according to the report. 

Gonzalez Avalos isn’t sure how he contracted COVID-19 but suspects his job might have something to do with it. For most of his life, Emilio worked in construction. Most recently, before falling ill, he packaged food on an assembly line. 

“I always feared for him, because he works for a temp agency and they usually send folks like my dad to mass production sites,” Gonzalez Avalos said. “I asked him to not work. But how do you ask a person who doesn’t have benefits to not work? It was a part of his dignity.”

Since checking into the hospital last week, Emilio has spent most of the time in the intensive care unit, getting better for brief spells, then taking a turn for the worse. When Sahan Journal spoke with Gonzalez Avalos midday Monday, over the phone, Emilio was resting and looking better after a scare over the weekend, when he spun into a delirium and didn’t recognize his family. 

Since Emilio fell ill, friends of the family launched a fundraising page to help pay for his health costs. 

Gonzalez Avalos spoke with Sahan Journal about Emilio’s fight against COVID-19, how it’s impacted her family, and what the public should know about the virus. This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity. 

Emilia Gonzalez Avalos:

I’m watching my dad sleep, through an iPad. The way I want to think about it is he’s catching up on a lot of sleep he hasn’t had in 30 years. It was only seven years ago that he stopped working more than one full-time job.

It’s been a roller coaster. He has had moments where he’s more responsive than others. He’s had moments where he didn’t recognize me. He was delirious over the weekend. He didn’t recognize me or my kids, his grandkids. So it’s different every day. 

It’s emotionally draining. I’m sure it’s draining for him, too. Right now he is in the intensive care unit still, and he looks better than the last time I saw him. I saw him overnight, and his face was getting blue. Right now he looks more like his regular color. His oxygen levels are steady and he’s wearing a mask. He has a [positive-pressure] facemask for oxygen. 

Yesterday, he was having a really hard time. I think it is really hard for him to be by himself. He was restless, he was finicking with his tubes and his devices. He’s now restrained. He has big gloves on his hands so he doesn’t scratch himself and take the mask off or pull out the needles. 

I try to watch him through the IPad as much as I can. I believe that if he hears me, if he hears that he’s loved, he will react. 

It’s hard to know how long he’s had COVID-19. Every time he gets sick he will wait, and then he will self-medicate with remedies—like honey and tea, cold water and lemon—and bring his fever down. The thing is that, with COVID-19 they don’t recognize how bad they are until it’s too late. It’s so silent and so sneaky, this illness. People don’t know their oxygen levels are low until they can’t breathe. 

I didn’t know he had COVID. When I got the call, that was my first guess. And when I saw him he was burning in fever. He used to hold me with one arm. I used to swing over his arm all the way until I was 10 years old, so this is a very strong man. It was really hard for me to see him that vulnerable and sick. 

My uncle was waiting for us there at the emergency room. But, you know, people are scared of this illness, so he was keeping his distance. I had on full gear: I had layers of clothes with long sleeves and gloves, and another set of gloves. I had a facemask and a shield. I went super protected and layered, because I had to load him into the car and take him into the hospital myself.

I had midterm exams right before this. I didn’t see him that often. He doesn’t like bugging me when I’m studying. He was really happy with the election results and really excited there was a turning point and maybe more possibilities for the immigration movement. But then I had to go and study. 

He brought me food, he made me tacos. I was studying really late at night and eating his food. He would send me messages. When I got my uncle’s call, I realized he hadn’t he hadn’t been communicating for the last two or three days. I just didn’t realize before because I was so exhausted. 

I took him in, and they told us that he had COVID lungs. That COVID-19 test wasn’t back, but they could see his lungs and his symptoms. His oxygen levels were dangerously low. Soon after the test came back, they confirmed that it was COVID-19. And his diagnosis was COVID-related pneumonia. They said they were going to take him to the ICU and I couldn’t see him again in person until he wasn’t contagious.

Some days he looks as calm and as peaceful as now. But during the weekend we thought he wasn’t going to make it. It’s really hard. It’s an unpredictable illness. It’s deadly and horrible and I don’t understand why people don’t take it seriously. 

Yesterday, his levels dropped so dangerously low that the doctors told me that they were going to put him in a ventilator. But they didn’t because he reacted so positively. I don’t know if it was any kind of medication, or maybe just because we talked to them. I want to think that helped. 

We’ve been singing to him. I sang to him. I have my kids sing to him. I ask my daughter to read to him. I ask my son to tell him things. I’ve played him music that he remembers from when he was growing up. He was 11 or 12 when the 1968 movements and the antiwar music and Woodstock came out. That’s the music he likes. 

People think that because he’s Mexican he likes banda and all that—and he does. He doesn’t look down on traditional folk music. But he likes Joe Cocker and Led Zeppelin. I’ve played Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Alan Parsons Project. He likes the old Metallica, and he likes the Metallica with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. So I play that for him a little bit.

He is from Mexico City, from a working class and low-wage worker neighborhood. My dad is a construction worker by trade. My grandfather was one, too. My dad had to work since he was little. Ever since he was able to carry a brick, he joined his dad and worked.

He didn’t allow himself to dream much. Every time you ask him, “What do you want?,” he said, “I just want you to finish school, or my grandkids to do what they want.” He always thinks of other people. In the few times I’ve gotten him to respond, he will say, “Well, I just want to be in a place where I can see the sun set every day, that is a slow pace, where I can eat fish”—because he really likes fish and seafood. I hope that I am able to provide that for him when he comes out.

He did recognize me last night. He was also able to hear my brother, who is in Mexico. My dad was very responsive to hear my brother’s voice. And my kids were also talking to him, and he was responsive. He told us that he loved us. He said that he’s fighting hard. 

He doesn’t talk much. He has that mask, so he already struggles talking. Under the mask, we can’t understand him as much, and he gets tired really fast. 

Public health reminds you every single day that individuality and selfishness is not how you solve pandemics or structural health inequities. Public health really teaches you that our health and survival relates to our conditions: to your zip code, to your friends and level of education that you might acquire. It is truly a picture that shows how intertwined we are. At the beginning of that network of survival are food-system workers, and my dad is one of them. 

I pray every day so that he makes it. We are waiting for him. Every day we are trying to be supportive and positive and remind him how much he is loved.

Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...