In November of 2020, I was recognized by the City of Houston for the volunteer work that I had performed throughout our city, state, country, and even internationally. It was a recognition that I did not expect but was humbled to receive because of the amount of energy I have put into giving back to our community. Following COVID-19 protocols, the event was broadcast virtually during the middle of the day. Unfortunately, most of my family was working at the time of the event, so I decided to screenshot the occasion and send it to them with the caption “The City of Houston proclaimed December 15, 2020 Juan Antonio Sorto Day.”
Within an hour my mother called me on the phone, concerned about my health. She noticed a very tired-looking face and wondered how I was doing. I reminded her that I had cut back on my volunteer activities and hobbies due to the pandemic and that my priorities had been primarily shifted to my employment, completing my dissertation, running a civic neighborhood association, and exercising. Like most concerned Latina mothers, she proceeded to recommend several natural remedies including soups and herbs. To appease her, I agreed to look for natural remedies. A few minutes later, I received a similar call from one of my aunts, expressing the same concerns as my mother.
While the award was meant to highlight all the good deeds that I had accomplished, it quickly turned into me explaining to my family that my health was okay. I reminded them how the pandemic had forced me to step away from many of the activities that I had participated in for years, while being employed full-time, working my way through a high school diploma, bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and most recently working on my Ph.D., all while simultaneously taking care of my grandmother, mother, and sister. The photo showed all the stress my body had been through during my 36 years of existence, which is common within the Latino community.
A Heritage of Hard Work
From an early age, we are taught that if we work hard, then we will eventually find financial success and happiness. Working hard takes on different meanings within our culture. For most, working hard is a form of survival where some start by working in the fields alongside their parents and some even serve as the primary breadwinners. My upbringing was a typical Latino experience. My grandmother does not know how to read and write because she left school at a very young age to work in the fields in El Salvador and help provide for her family. My mother, the youngest of five, completed the second grade before she migrated to the United States in the 1980s as a means of escaping poverty and the civil war that was tearing apart El Salvador. Soon after her arrival in Dallas she gave birth to me, and by the time I was five years old, she had decided to return to El Salvador.
While in El Salvador, my mother would cook and sell traditional dishes to make ends meet. There were times when I would take corn to the nearest mill to be ground into flour, which she would make into tortillas to sell. After a few years of extreme poverty, my mother returned to the United States where she settled in Houston. There my mother gave birth to my sister, and I assumed the role of older brother and took additional responsibilities to care for my baby sister while my mother worked long hours. As the years progressed, I also took on the responsibility of providing for my grandmother, naturally. In most Latin American households, it is common for the children and grandchildren to provide for their parents and grandparents.
Working hard is part of our DNA, and oftentimes our personal health suffers for it.
The Shame of Quitting
The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting Great Resignation have outlined several things that are being overlooked within the Latino experience. Many Latinos don’t have the means to quit our jobs, and if we do, we face criticism from within our own community. We are taught that working hard equals economic happiness, but no one talks openly about the mental toll that is associated with this accomplishment.
When I made the decision this year to leave my former employment after 12 years, a deep sense of guilt came with the decision. On one hand, my body could no longer handle the physically and emotionally draining work, but on the other hand, I kept looking back at how I spent most of my life achieving academic success in order to get my family out of poverty. I wondered if I was the only Latino who felt like this, so I turned to Google and YouTube but could not find anything on the subject. In fact, most of the research I found online speaks of how the Latin community contributes to the economic success of the United States, but no one talks about the actual mental, physical and emotional stress associated with it.
Breaking Free and Starting Fresh
My decision to quit my job, which was the only one I had since graduating with my bachelor’s degree, was not an easy decision to make. But my internet research produced a few good leads that allowed me to start searching for a way out of a situation that had me mentally exhausted. My search led to a resume-building company, which I hesitated to contact at first because of the cost associated with the services. Eventually I hired a resume coach, who not only revamped my CV and resume, but also allowed me to see my value and worth.
In February 2021, I left my job while continuing to apply for different positions. It was also the first time that I remember resting. Within a few weeks of leaving my job, I was able to find a position at an organization whose values aligned with mine, and the work allowed me to restore my mental health. It also strengthened my determination to complete my dissertation, which I had put aside in my previous situation.
My personal journey toward quitting my old job and starting a new one is a reminder that, for Latinos, the Great Resignation also includes letting go of cultural norms that have been instilled in us since childhood. We have struggles unique to our community. Latinas, for example, may have a harder time quitting their jobs because a part of our society still views them as domestic workers. Latinos have the high expectations of being the primary breadwinners. It is an issue that our culture continues to struggle to overcome, but one that must be discussed given how COVID-19 has disproportionally impacted communities of color.
While it is difficult to break away from the “hardworking” stereotype and norm, COVID-19 has taught us that hard work can also lead to other illnesses that can prevent our society from moving forward.
Juan Antonio Sorto is a first-generation college graduate from El Salvador and a doctoral candidate at Texas Southern University’s School of Urban Planning and Environmental Justice. His dissertation focuses on how public participation influences the placement of affordable housing in higher opportunity communities.