CHICAGO — I haven’t read my poetry in public since 2019. The absence of open mics hardly counts as tragedy amid the suffering of a pandemic, but man I miss poetry readings. I couldn’t contain my excitement when I learned of an open mic in my neighborhood. With my second dose of the vaccine scheduled, I was ready to go back to normal.
As I messaged the event organizer, I didn’t stop to think about my girlfriend even though she was sitting right next to me. She doesn’t expect to be eligible for a vaccine until May or June. I didn’t stop to think about my community that is largely unvaccinated. The seductive power that comes with a vaccine is something I never anticipated. In a couple of days, I would receive my second dose, but already I felt invincible. Who knew one of the side effects of the vaccine was corruption?
I’ve written in the past that essential workers are not heroes simply because we are treated like we are expendable. But heroes are real. I know a hero. She gave me a much-needed reality check. Her name is Celeste Castillo.
Though she was only eight years old and had just gone through a traumatic car accident, Celeste wasn’t focused on the six-car pile-up. Instead, she spent four days in the hospital mesmerized by all the machines with their different lights and sounds. In particular, she was fascinated by a magic button that would summon a nurse every time she felt pain or nausea. She knew then she would be a healer.
Let’s take a pause here to reflect on the numerous reports about COVID-19’s impact on the Latinx community. These stories have been bleak, to say the least. At times reporters seem to blame the Latinx community for our poor health. They blame our diets and living conditions as major contributors to the spread of coronavirus. They don’t provide the context for our diets and living conditions as if poverty and lack of health care are secondary to our cultural ways. The implied question of such reporting is, “Who will save the Latinx community?” Of course, this question has an obvious answer: the Latinx community.
Celeste felt like her dream to become a nurse in the cardiac ICU was impossible. It almost was impossible. Celeste was undocumented for most of her life. Her mother brought her from South America when she was a baby. Her mother cleaned houses to support the family and taught Celeste the 3 rules for surviving while undocumented:
- You have to work three times as hard as Americans.
- You have to get good grades.
- You can’t get in trouble.
Celeste was 15 when she was granted her permanent residency, but she still follows these rules. It’s why at 23 years old she achieved her dream and is working in a Chicago hospital ICU. However, working during a pandemic was never part of her dream. COVID-19 exacerbated her imposter syndrome. She works 12 hours shifts from 7 p.m.-7 a.m. while floating from one ICU to another as she keeps wrestling with her doubts. She worries about screwing up the small details that are crucial during a pandemic such as keeping her mask sealed. The day her gloves ripped while helping a patient, she was worried that she had contracted the virus.
It takes mental strength to work at an ICU, but what is perhaps not as obvious are the physical demands of the job. For instance, Celeste explained the process of proning a patient. I’ve never heard of proning, but essentially, it’s turning a patient over so that they are laying on their stomach. This allows for greater expansion of the patient’s lungs and can be useful with respiratory illnesses. The challenge of course is to turn a patient over while they have several wires and monitors hooked up to them including a ventilator. Imagine the kind of danger a patient would face if the ventilator that was keeping them alive suddenly got disconnected. Imagine that the patient is sedated and weighs several hundred pounds. Now imagine he’s not your only patient! Proning is a delicate dance that requires at least four individuals to perform not including the respiratory therapist whose only job is to ensure that the ventilator is not dislodged.
While you’re imagining this grueling work, take some time to consider what it’s like to be a Latina nurse where the majority of the patients are Latinx and Black. Consider the strength it takes to put aside your anger, depression and imposter syndrome because you’re the only thing standing in the way of your communities’ extinction. Celeste has no time to feel sorry for herself. She’s too busy working three times as hard as all of us.
I want Celeste to know I’m being responsible. It’s why I bring up the vaccine in our conversation. To my surprise, she has mixed feelings about it. To be clear, Celeste is vaccinated and advocates for everyone to get it. But while many people are talking about equitable distribution into communities of color, Celeste doesn’t buy it. For her, real equity starts with education. She’s lost count of how many times she’s heard Black and Latinx community members say that they don’t trust the vaccine because it was “rushed” and they don’t know what is in it. In the minds of our community, we are guinea pigs. Celeste knows there is a racist history that justifies mistrust, but she’s critical of allowing generational trauma to influence our decisions. She needs us to make better choices.
I needed this conversation with Celeste. I needed the reminder that the fight extends beyond the walls of the hospital. Celeste needs us to wear our masks. She needs us to get the vaccine. She needs us to wash our hands. She needs me to avoid open mics. How can I call her a friend if I inadvertently spread the disease and fill up her ICU? How can I say I love my community if I turn my back on them just so I can read a poem? How can I risk my own girlfriend, who is not vaccinated, and then claim to love her? The truth is that the poem I would have read at the open mic is a poem that has been rejected by a few publications. No one wants to publish it and rather than swallowing my pride, I almost make a stupid decision because my bruised ego needs to hear someone clap for my writing. I needed this conversation with Celeste.
I asked her what she thinks about everything else going on in the world—the Capitol riots, Trump and immigration. She says it’s nothing new. She tells me when she was in nursing school she was sitting with her friend and a boy joined them. He asked her what she wanted to do after she graduated. Celeste told him she wanted to work in the cardiac ICU. He responded, “No offense, but I can’t picture someone like you in the cardiac ICU.” He gestured to her friend and said, “I can see someone like her, white and smart doing it.” I can feel my blood boil as Celeste tells me this. In my mind, I’m already crafting three paragraphs to rip this white boy apart, but first I had to know what Celeste said in response. She didn’t say anything. She ignored him because to quote her, “I let my actions do the talking.”
Unlike Celeste, I can’t let this go. I ask her, “But what if some racist like that ends up in the ICU and you have to save his life? What if they refuse treatment from a brown woman? From an immigrant?” She reminds me that that is also nothing new. She tells me that her mother still cleans homes for a living. Her mother’s wealthy white employers know she has a daughter. They often ask her mother if her daughter is pregnant or married yet. Celeste laughs it off. She tells me that if they ever end up in her ICU, she will lift up her shirt and say, “See? Not pregnant! But I do have some lifesaving medication for you.”
I’m happy to report that I received my second dose of the vaccine. I will continue to wear my mask and wash my hands. I will not gather in crowds. I will be better about loving my neighbors. I will be better about loving my girlfriend. I will not make things harder for healthcare workers. I will not give in to the corruption of the vaccine.
Getting the vaccine was a blessing in more than one way. The healthcare worker who injected me at Malcolm X College took one look at my tattoo of Our Lady of Guadalupe and panicked. She told me there was no way she could inject la virgencita’s face. She didn’t want to upset la virgencita because she knew she was protecting me. She studied my arm and found a good spot. When she finished, she placed the band-aid vertically to not obstruct la virgencita’s view. I felt seen. I felt respected. I felt saved. Celeste is not alone. She’s not our only hero.
Arturo “Tootie” Alvarez is based in Chicago. He trucks. He writes. Not at the same time. Twitter @TootieAlvarez.