Fear Of Getting COVID-19 Launches A North Carolina Latino Family Into A New Career
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At the back of her garage, Leticia Mercado sat at a sewing machine on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving as she stitched the straps onto a black, cotton mask. The whir of the machine was her constant accompaniment.
Mercado and her husband, Jose Luis Núñez, have worked in the textile industry for 25 years, so the hum of sewing machines has always been a common background noise for their family.
But these days, it’s the sound of a successful business that started in their own home in the middle of a pandemic.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, they worked in factories upholstering furniture and supplemented their income with reupholstering furniture jobs out of their garage in Asheboro. But when the coronavirus pandemic hit North Carolina in March, that all changed.
At first the couple was furloughed from the furniture factory they worked in. They were relieved when they got called back in June, but that relief was short-lived when they realized not everyone was protecting themselves from the virus.
While workers were provided with masks, not everyone wore them.
“They would tell us that it was optional,” Núñez said. “Taking care of yourself was a personal decision.”
For Núñez, who has diabetes and other health conditions that put him at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19, this was concerning. He was afraid that no matter how safe and careful he was, he could still get sick.
Núñez saw some of his own family members get COVID-19. Three of Mercado’s siblings got the virus and two ended up in the hospital. He said other members of their family died. The fear of catching the disease himself began negatively affecting his mental health.
“I went into a depression. I got really sick,” Núñez said. “I couldn’t sleep, I got really depressed and I couldn’t work.”
Seeing his mental health was on a downward spiral, Núñez’s sister, Toña Núñez, suggested the three of them start making and selling face masks.
“I know how to make clothes so I feel like this fit like a glove for me,” Toña Núñez said. “I really wanted to do it.”
As an employee in a textile factory herself, Toña Núñez understood firsthand the dangers of having to work in person.
“It’s a bit frustrating because we have to expose ourselves to the virus while other people are at home,” Núñez said. “We don’t have that benefit.”
However, Mercado was not entirely persuaded by her sister-in-law’s idea.
“I didn’t really see it having a future because I used to say, ‘masks are so small,’ I’m used to sewing much bigger things,” Mercado said.
After some convincing, they started designing and making masks out of the thinnest furniture fabric they could find in their workshop. They tested out different styles and fabrics to ensure the masks were comfortable and safe. They eventually landed on a design that’s comfortable enough for frontline workers to wear for hours. The masks have pockets for filters and adjustable straps.
They gave masks away to essential workers and sold them by promoting their masks on Facebook groups.
Because of the toll on Jose Luis Núñez’s mental and physical health, he and his wife quit their jobs at the factory in August and got serious about turning their mask-making side job into a sustainable business.
They named their company Hecho en Carolina, Spanish for "Made in Carolina."
As sales picked up, Mercado invested her own money to buy six sewing machines and materials to make the masks. She also asked Siembra NC, a Latino advocacy organization, to help her officially launch the business.
Mercado and her family have been members of Siembra NC for almost two years, after the organization supported them following the deportation of one of their family members.
That was when Nikki Marín Baena, a volunteer for Siembra NC, met the family. She is also the director of finance and economic development at Mijente, another Latino advocacy organization, and has been providing the Hecho en Carolina business owners with guidance and support.
Marín Baena connected them with customers seeking large wholesale orders, like the Guilford County Association of Educators, who helped the group test mask samples. Mijente also ordered the masks it provided to its election volunteers from Hecho en Carolina.
Mercado says she first turned to Siembra NC hoping to get help with promoting the masks.
“I would tell them, ‘We’re going to make masks, help us promote them.’ And now we’re so busy with work,” Mercado said. “At first I asked for more business, and now we’re so overwhelmed with all the orders we don't know what to do.”
According to Marín Baena, since this summer, Hecho en Carolina has sold more than 6,000 masks, each costing $12. Marín Baena says she expects the business to make between $30,000-$40,000 in revenue by the end of the year.
The week of Thanksgiving, the business launched its website and social media platforms. By Friday, eight of the 12 available styles were sold out. Marín Baena says Hecho en Carolina has sold masks to 56 different customers and has received two wholesale orders.
“I keep joking that it’s a great problem to have,” Marín Baena said. “We’re having to catch up with the surprising amount of support that the project is receiving.”
The increase in business meant Hecho en Carolina had to hire outside help, allowing them to provide jobs to members of their community. Currently, Marín Baena says they have hired four part-time workers.
“We still can’t believe it. Right now it’s going really well, thank God,” Mercado said. “I’m not becoming a millionaire. But it’s about trying to live comfortably.”
While the family has found success in their new mask business, the past few months haven’t been without personal tragedy.
A few of Mercado’s family members have contracted and died of COVID-19, and just last week one of her nephews who lives in Mexico died of a different medical condition.
“It makes you want to throw everything away,” Mercado said. “But we have to keep going. They need us.”
While Mercado and Núñez emigrated to the United States 25 years ago, most of their family still lives in Mexico. Mercado says she sends a portion of the Hecho en Carolina’s profits back home to support them financially.
As for the future of Hecho en Carolina, Mercado says she hopes to continue selling masks for as long as possible.
The next hurdle for the business, Marín Baena said, is finding ways to keep sales up once the excitement of the launch wears off.
“Keeping it ongoing and keeping sales up so that this actually becomes something that they can count on reliably for income is going to be a long-term project,” Marín Baena said.
If the pandemic ends and people eventually stop wearing masks, Mercado and her husband said they would like to return to their original trade of reupholstering furniture, and turn the workshop that is currently making masks back to an upholstery business.
Marín Baena says she is willing to help the Hecho en Carolina team for as long as they “want to try out different versions of this experiment.”
And Mercado says she doesn’t plan on giving up.
“We have to keep fighting to try to succeed. We can’t stay at a standstill waiting for work or for places to open back up,” Mercado said. “We have to look for a way to keep fighting.”
Below is information about where you can go for more resources.
Siembra NC is an advocacy organization that supports the Latino community in North Carolina. The organization fights for immigration and wage reform. During the coronavirus pandemic, the group has provided masks, food and financial support to members of the Latino community in the state.
Mijente is a nonprofit Latino organization that advocates for racial, economic, gender and climate justice. The organization published a report on the effects of COVID-19 on the Latino community.
Prospera is a nonprofit organization that provides Latino entrepreneurs with bilingual assistance in establishing and managing their businesses.