The COVID-19 pandemic has taken an incalculable toll on the food industry workers of America, from restaurant servers and meat plant workers to the farmworkers who toil in fields. According to research from the University of California, San Francisco, food industry workers’ risk of dying went up by 40 percent from March to October 2020. For Latinx workers, deaths increased by 60 percent in the sector.
In this six-part series, we’re honoring the lives of those we have lost to COVID-19. This week, we have tributes to a contract farmer who loved to cook, an Iowa cattle farmer and a chili plant worker who also grew his own food.
Humberto Rey always made sure everyone in his life was well fed. Throughout his 30-year career as a contract farmer, his daughter Cecilia recalls he always kept a fully stocked ice chest in his truck for all his workers to enjoy. “He had drinks, fruit and all kinds of little sweet things that he would carry and say, ‘If you’re hungry or you’re thirsty, help yourself, there’s plenty,” she says.
Cooking was Rey’s passion, and many of his family’s memories are centered around a table of his home cooking. Cecilia says she, her four siblings and their children would gather at Rey’s house on Sundays for a huge breakfast and lunch spread.
He took his cooking so seriously that when his wife had a garage and game room added to their home, Rey outfitted it entirely with kitchen appliances, tossing out a pool table to make room for a stainless steel stove, a fridge and sink. “That was his favorite room. He was always in there,” says Cecilia.
After years of working in farming—tending to fields of chilis, onions, cabbage and pumpkins—and cooking for his family, Rey decided to turn his passion into his career. He started up a food truck, Burritos Express, about three years ago.
Rey was born in Mexico and came to the US when he was 16. He met his wife, also named Cecilia, and they raised their family in the small town of Hatch, N.M. The couple was living in the nearby town of Hugo, operating the popular food truck this past July when Rey contracted COVID-19.
He was admitted to the Memorial Medical Center in Las Cruces, N.M. and died of complications from the virus on July 22. He was 56. Rey is survived by his wife, his children—Cecilia, Humberto Jr., Efren, Eduardo and Ibonne—19 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Rey, an active person and avid biker, was always healthy before he contracted the virus, and his death shocked his close-knit family, who miss his infectious smile, caregiving nature and excellent cooking. For Rey’s birthday this April—the family’s first without him—his relatives gathered to cook his favorite foods and light up fireworks in his honor. “We wanted to celebrate it like if he were here,” says Cecilia.
For Larry Dewell, farming was a family affair.
Born in 1937, Dewell grew up on his family’s farm just north of Clarence, Iowa.
Dewell and his wife of 61 years, Arnola, who goes by “Nonie,” raised four kids on their own farm, located within a mile of Dewell’s brother and father’s farm.
With an easygoing, slow-to-anger personality, Dewell got along with everyone. His daughter Vicki Hamdorf remembers how graciously he taught his children the ins and outs of farm life. “Dad was always extremely patient with all of us. He enjoyed having us out there working on the farm with him,” she says.
Dewell’s favorite—and the most prominent aspect—of his farm was raising cattle, a passion he passed on to his kids, who all grew up raising and showing calves in the county fair.
During the farm crisis in 1980, Dewell took a job at a co-op in Clarence, where he operated a grain elevator, according to Vicki. Dewell worked there for more than 20 years until he was75, when a series of health problems made retiring his only option. “He would have still been working if he could,” says Vicki. “He just didn’t like to sit still.”
Despite his work ethic, Vicki says Dewell always made time for his children. He never missed a recital or game.
Last year, Dewell moved into a seniors center about a block away from the home he lived in with Nonie. When it closed to visitors due to the pandemic, his wife was still determined to see him, and she would walk over every day to bring him cookies and say hello through a window.
This past October, the family learned that COVID-19 had gotten into the seniors center. Dewell caught pneumonia and then COVID-19. Dewell died of complications from the disease on Nov. 5. He was 83. Dewell leaves behind his wife, children—Rory, Vicki, Dawn, and Reece— 14 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren—a big family that Dewell cherished.
“His favorite thing was our family Christmases. There were right around 50 people the last few years, and he always wanted to get a picture with his family,” says Vicki. “He always had to have that picture on this wall. He was just so proud.”
When Jose Garcia immigrated to the United States at the age of 17, he was determined to make a good life for his wife, Genoveva Garcia Martinez, and his future family.
Fiercely loyal and a hard worker by nature, Garcia got a job at Cervantes Enterprises, a chili plant in Vado, N.M., where he worked for his whole career—for more than 50 years, says his daughter Carolina Garcia. Garcia found great joy in his work. “My dad, being out there in his tractor, in those fields, it would help him to just clear his mind. I think he really, really enjoyed that,” says Carolina.
Garcia was born on Sept. 16, 1952 in Canatlán, a city in Durango, Mexico. In their first few years, the Garcias lived in a two-bedroom house owned by Cervantes Enterprises. He and his wife struggled to conceive for nearly seven years before going on to have 10 children.
The house was surrounded by the fields Garcia worked, Carolina says. She remembers her dad coming home with armfuls or fruits of his hard day’s labor—pecans, corn, watermelon, anything he could bring back for his kids to enjoy.
Garcia was a provider, and as the family grew, he knew they’d need a bigger space, so he built his family a larger home with his own hands. During the summers, Garcia made sure his children got out into the fields, too. “We would pick pecan and chilis. He wanted us to see what hard work is,” says Carolina.
Even when a job was done for the day, Garcia could never seem to stop working, spending hours planting and gardening on his days off. On the rare occasion the family could get him to relax, Garcia loved being out in nature, taking his wife to buy flowers and just being with family—often at cookouts and barbecues.
Garcia worked tirelessly his whole life until last November, when he tested positive for COVID-19. Garcia was admitted to Memorial Medical Center in Las Cruces, N.M. Carolina, a nurse at the hospital for 12 years, was able to check in on him in the hospital. She was the only family member allowed to visit.
Garcia died from complications of the virus on Dec. 15, 2020. He was 68. Garcia is survived by his wife, two sons—Jose and Andres—seven daughters—Carolina, Corina, Consuelo, Raquel, Erika, Sandra and Adriana—28 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Garcia’s top priority throughout his life was to give his children every opportunity to do anything they wanted. “My dad came to the United States with that dream of doing something and providing for his family,” Carolina says. “And he definitely did.”