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In the eye of the pandemic: how the coronavirus spread through a small immigrant town in Iowa

Antojitos Carmen is a popular, family-owned Mexican restaurant in the small town of Columbus Junction, Iowa. But, an outbreak of coronavirus in a local Tyson meat packing plant turned the community into one of nation's hotspots for the disease, wreaking havoc on three generations of the restaurant's immigrant owners. (Leer en español)
4 Jun 2020 – 11:43 AM EDT
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When Maria del Carmen Castellanos sold her popular Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles seven years ago she joined the steady flow of Latino families who have settled for the slower pace of life in rural Iowa.

Her plan was to spend more time with her children and grandchildren.

But, the coronavirus changed all that, turning her life into a constant roller coaster.
Her husband of 42 years, Salvador Ortega, spent almost seven weeks in hospital fighting covid-19, as the virus swept through three generations of their family in the small, meat-packing town of Columbus Junction.

“He's half of me. he's been my co-worker, all my life. Always together, everywhere we've been. Because, he has always supported me in what I like to do ... cooking.”

Carmen’s story is typical of many Latino families in Iowa, the nation's largest pork producer and the heart of its meat packing industry with a string of packing plants spread across its plains.

The covid-19 outbreaks led 40 plants to suspend operations sparking fears of a shortage in U.S. meat production.

About 11,000 cases of coronavirus are tied to the meat packing industry, according to a Washington Post analysis of public records. At least 45 workers have died.

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Labor shortages looming in immigrant-heavy meatpacking industry

It’s also emblematic of the dramatic demographic shift in southeast Iowa, which boasts a Latino population dating back more than 150 years, and which has been growing fast in the last two decades thanks in large part to the meat packing industry.


Last month, the covid-19 outbreak in the Tyson meat packing plant in Columbus Junction, turned Louisa County into one of the biggest per-capita hotspots in the country.

The plant closed down on April 6 after 166 workers tested positive for the virus. Two later died.

The 349 cases in the Louisa County (pop 11,000) put its rate of infection higher than New York City.

First it was Carmen’s son-in-law who works in the local Tyson meat packing plant, who fell ill. Then, in quick succession, it was their daughter, Maria, followed by her six children. Her in-laws also succumbed to the virus.

Carmen’s niece, Lourdes, who works in a meat packing plant in nearby West Liberty, also got sick.

After he caught the virus, Salvador’s situation deteriorated rapidly, aggravated by his diabetes. He was rushed to hospital on April 13 and put on a ventilator the next day.

When she was not on the phone with the hospital, Carmen kept preparing meals at the Mexican restaurant, Antojitos Carmen, that the couple opened in Columbus Junction soon after moving there.

“The situation is difficult here ... businesses are all closed, there's nothing,” she said earlier this month, even as she tried to put on her best face talking about her latest video call with Salvador, in hospital in Iowa City, about 40 minutes drive north. “He can't move at all. I don't know if he understands what's going on. We don't understand either,” she said.

Columbus Junction

In the 1850’s before Columbus Junction was a town, Hispanic cattle farmers settled in the area. But the immigrant presence has really grown over the last two decades.

There are many towns now where Hispanics are a big presence," says Rafael Morataya, director of the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa. “All the towns now have taquerias. There are 'pupusas' in Ottumwa,” added Morataya, referring to a traditional meal from his home country of El Salvador.

Iowa’s economy struggled to recover from the 2008 recession, and the Hispanic influx is credited with helping it rebound.

When we look at Carmen and her family, three generations, we see a family that has helped to rebuild Iowa after the recession,” said Joe Henry, Iowa political director for the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). “We could have not done it without the diversity,” he added.

While Iowa remains one of the whitest states in the country, with Hispanics making up only 6.4 percent of the population, Columbus Junction, is perhaps the way of the future. Almost every business's sign is in Spanish and this rural town of less than 2,000, about 230 miles west of Chicago, has four taquerias.

In the local school, 400 of the 698 students are Hispanic, according to school board data.

Nearly one third of local businesses are Latino-owned, according to the local community development center. “The tacos are delicious, the Quinceañera dresses are beautiful and fresh mangos, avocados and jalapenos are always available,” it states on its website.

There is also a growing refugee community from Myanmar (Burma).

Antojitos Carmen

After it opened on Main Street, Antojitos Carmen, quickly became one of the most popular spots in town, modeled on the eatery with the same name that Carmen ran successfully in the Boyle Heights neighborhood on the eastern outskirts of downtown Los Angeles.

Carmen left Michoacán 30 years ago with her husband and three children, and brought her mother’s recipe and love of cooking with her.

She made a name for herself in Los Angeles for preparing open air street food in the 1980s, before launching her indoor restaurant on César Chávez Avenue. In the process she earned rave reviews for her traditional Mexican dishes, such as tacos del pastor, gorditas, and quesadillas.

Her 'burrito mojado' “became famous,” she likes to recall.

One Los Angeles food critic hailed her signature huarache de huitlacoche, fried corn dough with beans and sautéed onions, sprinkled with lettuce and crumbled cheese and a habanero salsa called ‘El Chamuco’, the devil, “for its ability to infiltrate your soul.”

On the walls, Carmen hung pictures from the village of Yurécuaro in north-west Michoacán, where and Salvador are both from and where her 90-year-old mother, also a cook, still lives.

“We are 10 brothers and sisters, all cooks,” she says. Three live in Alberta, Canada, two are in California and another is in Mexico City.

Carmen keeps memories of Michoacán tattooed on her arms, including the famous monarch butterflies that migrate to its forests in the winter.

Carmen moved to Iowa after her son-in-law, lost his job during the 2008 recession and went east looking for work. Both he and her daughter ended up with jobs at the Tyson plant in Columbus Junction that employs about 1,400 people.

“A cozy little town”

When Carmen came to visit Iowa on vacation she fell in love with the peace and quiet, compared to all the noise of police sirens in Los Angeles. “I came for a visit, to have a rest,” she says. Weary of working on her feet all day, she decided to sell up and move to Iowa for good about seven years ago. “ Columbus is a cozy little town. Lots of fresh air, very green. You can hear the rabbits running about,” she says.

She wasn’t planning to go back into business, but she quickly got bored doing nothing. “I said to my husband, I am not going to put up with it here. We doing nothing, it's desperate to be like that, bored,” she adds.

When she heard about an opening on Main Street, she took the plunge again, opening her second Antojitos Carmen, with the same menu and photos on the walls from Michoacán.

The sign outside says ‘Authentic Mexican Food. Home style.” Soon she had people queuing outside, many of them Tyson plant workers. So, she bought the space next door and opened up an archway linking the two premises, creating space for 30 tables. The place was packed, especially at weekends.

“Many people who work at the plant, we cooked for them. They call in their orders and we have it ready for them,” Carmen said.

That came to a sudden halt when the virus hit in late March.

The virus strikes

After businesses were ordered to close, Carmen tried to keep the restaurant open for delivery service.

But the moment came when the virus no longer allowed us to work. We just couldn't anymore, your body ache, everything hurts,” she said.

Carmen believes she may have gotten it from a customer. She was sitting at a table with someone who had just come from the doctor “I asked her if she had done the test and she said that the doctor had told her that it was just a flu. She already had the virus,” she said.

In the restaurant they took every precaution, wiping tables down and wearing face masks.

After her daughter’s family got sick she cooked and delivered meals for all eight of them. “We tried to do the best we could, ”she said. “They were all lying in bed. With teas, with tylenol,” she said.

The oldest ones got it worst. Her son-in-law's mother was hospitalized for a week.

The most serious case was her husband. "Despite everything we did to protect oursleves, it hit him very hard,” she said.


The hospital’s coronavirus policy meant she couldn’t stay with him, or even visit. They communicated via Zoom with the help of Salvador’s nurses. There were several weeks when Salvador was sedated, and all the nurses could do was show pictures and video and try and explain his situation to the family.

After 42 years together, the separation was the hardest part. “Es una cosa muy dura separarnos, en esta situación,” she said, lowering her head and choking back her emotions.

Salvador took care of the business. He kept the keys. He had the password to the computer in the restaurant, the pin for the bank machine.

“Now I have to do everything. I carry all the keys. But now I forget things. My mind is ... it's the worry of it all,” she says.

The doctor at table two

But Carmen was relieved to discover that her husband was in good hands. Early on, she discovered one of his doctors was a client of the restaurant.

"One day he asked, 'where are you from?' I said, 'from Columbus Junction,' and he replied; "I often go to Columbus Junction to eat at a Mexican restaurant, Antojitos Carmen."

To which Carmen replied: “Do you know who you are talking to? With Carmen, the cook at Antojitos. ”

"I said to him, with full confidence, 'I entrust my husband to you, because I want him to get well and come home soon,'" she recalled. The doctor reassured her, saying: " I will take care of your husband as if he were my father."

Carmen said "that gave me peace of mind because I knew he was in good hands.”

When Salvador learned who his doctor was, he liked the idea of their roles being reversed. “He liked that. My husband said, 'he's the person who when he comes, he always sits at table two," he told her.

In an interview, Doctor Joseph Zabner, head of pulmonary care at Iowa University Hospital, said he became a fan of the first Antojitos Carmen when he read a review in the Los Angeles Times.

Once he realized who Carmen was “we created a good bond between the two of us.”

When patients began arriving in March, Zabner said the hospital staff quickly noticed how many were Latinos from the meat packing plants.

“In the pulmonary unit we have had many Latinos and we agreed we had to call the their relatives every day to give them a report of how their family member was doing in intensive care,” he said.

Other non-Spanish speaking staff were having a hard time communicating with the relatives of the Latino patients. “When we explained to them, they understood what was happening ... we could give him a certain degree of optimism, at the same time telling them the severity of this disease,” he said.

Zabner said when Salvador entered the hospital on April 13 he was already in a bad shape. "He had kidney failure and needed a lot of oxygen,” he said. The next day, Salvador’s 64th birthday, he was put on a ventilator to help him breathe.

When Salvador recovered enough to be taken off the machine, he suffered a setback the next day and had to undergo a trache
otomy, a surgical procedure to insert a tube in his neck to help his breathing.

"He was very lucky," said Zabner. " Patients of this severity have a very high mortality. Several places in the United States have reported mortality of 80-90 percent. At our university, mortality is much lower. But still he was very lucky to have come out of this disease alive,” he said.

Essential workers

After production resumed gradually at the Columbus Junction plant on April 21 it has since returned full capacity.

Carmen’s son-in-law is among those who have returned to work.

After more plants were forced to close across the country, on April 28, President Donald Trump issued an executive order deeming meatpacking facilities "critical infrastructure,” to ensure the nation’s meat supply.

Critics warned of a continued risk to the health of workers unless new safety measures on the production line were introduced. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued recommended guidelines, but the White House declined to make them mandatory.

“The plants have become incubators for the virus because workers have been forced to work very close to each other, with very little time for breaks,” said Henry, LULAC’s Iowa political director.

“Who is going to pay the medical bills for all the people who are sick,” he added, noting that meat packers barely make $40,000 a year.

Tyson won’t say how many of its workers have gotten sick. The Iowa University Hospital said it has treated 211 covid patients since March 11.

“The health and safety of our team members, their families and communities is our top priority, and we take this responsibility extremely seriously,” the company said in a statement.

The company said “protective social distancing measures” have been put in place that meet the guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
That includes temperature checks before every shift, face shields and plexiglass workstation barriers, and selective covid-19 testing.

"They are taking good measures to keep people working," Carmen acknowledged. But, like many, she wonders if they could have done more sooner.

"As the saying goes; ‘They covered the well after the child drowned,"’ she said.

As a result, her family and many others, may have suffered unnecessarily, leaving the town in a state of collective mourning.

"It hurts a lot," she said. "It was very bad that they didn't take the safety measures, knowing that the town relies on this plant. The plant workers have a lot of family, and when they got infected they infected all the families here in town, ”she added.

Blaming Latinos

Some politicians have blamed the workers for spreading the virus, saying they brought it into the plant from their homes. “We believe that 99 per cent of what’s going on today wasn’t happening inside the facility,” said South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, another hotbed of covid cases in the meat packing industry.

“It was more at home where these employees were going home and spreading some of the virus because a lot of them live in the same community, the same building, sometimes in the same apartment,” she added.

Comments like that don’t sit well with the workers, local community leaders, or Dr Zabner, who is a 58-year-old Venezuelan immigrant who came to the United States 30 years ago, around the same time as Carmen.

“It is sad to hear certain politicians say that this is a problem with Latinos. That's blaming the victims,” he said. " We have not seen a coronavirus epidemic in Latinos, only Latinos who work at the Tyson plant," he added.

In fact, the opposite of what the governor said is likely true.

" Epidemiologically, it is very likely that the place of contact was at the plant," said Zabner. "The meat processing plants are places where there are many people working very close to each other, the temperature is low,” he added.

Furthermore, the hospital’s earliest patients from the meat plants never received protective gear or were told to observe social distancing, he said.

Some sick workers may indeed have gone to work, out of ignorance or worry about losing pay, and the overtime that many families rely on to make ends meet and put a little savings aside.

“People have to work,” said Carmen. “We Latinos are like that. We just work, work, work, at whatever cost,” she added.

"Invisible enemy"

To be sure, while many say Tyson could have acted sooner to test workers for the virus and introduce social distancing, the company isn’t entirely to blame.

“I don't blame the plant, because the virus is an invisible enemy and the truth is we don't know where it comes from,” said Maria, Carmen's daughter, who also worked seven years at the plant.

“I think that if [Tyson] had known what was going to happen ... the plant would have protected its workers long before. Maybe they took the appropriate measures a little late,” she added.

Many in the town feel the same way, and are unwilling to place the blame fully on Tyson. “No one was prepared. It wasn't just Tyson, or Columbus, it was the whole world,” said Maria Gomez, the vice president of the Columbus Community School District, herself a Mexican immigrant from Guanajuato.

Gomez, 34, is married to a Mexican-born former meat packing worker and knows the plant well from trip to conduct citizenship classes there.

She recently toured the plant to see the safety measures Tyson has introduced. She described thermal imaging cameras at the entrance to check temperatures. Two large tents were erected to expand the rest area. The company moved microwaves further apart in the dining areas.

I don’t think anyone was as prepared as they probably should have been for this,” said Frank Best, 51, a local city councilor who paid his way through college working at the Tyson plant.

“It’s tough for the packing houses. They have these [production] lines that have to move at a certain speed because they have to keep up with market demands,” he added.

Like many former workers, Best described the back-breaking work conditions, that leave many meat packers with lasting injuries.

“Some mornings I couldn’t open my fist because they were so sore and tight,” he said, recalling how he bathed his hands in hot wax before starting his shift. “You put your hands in to relax the muscles,” he said.

Best, and others like Dr Zabner, say the meat packers deserve more recognition for the essential work they are now required to carry out.

Getting back to normal

Carmen reopened the restaurant May 15, though for now she is only allowed to
operate at a 50 percent capacity under the covid-19 public health guidelines.

Salvador finally came home on Friday.

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Carmen and Maria spent the last few days organizing his room; a second-hand bed with adjustable electric height, an oxygen tank. Maria plans to let him use her Netflix account so he can watch his favorite movie, ‘Coco,’ the animated Disney adventure about a Mexican boy who is transported to the Land of the Dead and has to battle his way back to his family.

“I want him to be entertained, and as comfortable as he can be so that he recovers soon and we can get our lives back to normal,” said Maria.

Watch a Facebook Watch report on the meat packing crisis by Real America with Jorge Ramos

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