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This former politician wants politicians to know what it’s like to be jobless, get COVID, scrape to survive

Araceli Gonzalez-Burkle, a former vice mayor of Cudahy, lost her job and nearly died of COVID-19 last year.
Araceli Gonzalez-Burkle, the former vice mayor of Cudahy, lost her job as an executive assistant in May. In December, she nearly died of COVID-19. Now, she is relying on food pantries to fill the fridge for herself and her son at their Walnut apartment.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

How many meals can you eke out of a frozen quarter-chicken from the food bank? How many tacos from its shredded meat? How many bowls of soup from its bones?

How many days can you go without having to hit the coin-op laundry? How long can you avoid spending $4 for a load if you hand-wash your underwear and T-shirts and hang them to dry in the bathroom?

How many months will the exhaustion linger after surviving COVID-19? Will walking to the mailbox ever again not feel like a trek up a steep mountain?

These are the daily worries of a woman I talked to this week as the National Guard descended on Washington and America reeled from an attack on our Capitol — while all over our country thousands of households face bread-and-butter security crises that also are grave, with people out of work and sick and unable to pay their rents and hungry and desperately in need of help from a federal government long otherwise occupied.

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It was out of concern that in the current conflagration these desperate household crises were being ever more forgotten that I reached out to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. I was looking to tell a personal story that would help remind us all of the enormous suffering out there.

But I had no idea that I would find the kind of story that I did — or one so connected in its way to what is going on right now in Washington.

David May, who handles communications for the food bank, mentioned a woman who had arrived with her young son at a recent drive-through food distribution in West Covina. She said she was out of work and had gotten so sick with COVID-19 that her heart actually stopped as the ambulance arrived. He sent me a short video of her recounting her recent trials.

That’s all I knew when I first got on the phone with Araceli Gonzalez-Burkle, who turned out to be a former local politician, a Republican who twice voted for President Trump, a go-getter who was just a few classes short of her MBA until her pandemic joblessness left her unable to keep paying tuition.

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She told me she used to be a person with savings, who donated to food banks. Now she goes to every food distribution she can find to make sure that her fridge isn’t empty when her 7-year-old son Gabriel looks inside.

She used to take part in local government discussions about Medi-Cal and CalFresh, the state’s low-income healthcare and food stamps programs. In recent months, she’s had to sign up for both.

So she has no patience for the conspiracy theories of others in her party or the dangerous false claims of a president who cannot accept that Joe Biden won the election, not him.

“Trump, sorry you lost. Move on. Biden is my president now,” she told me. “Let him do his job and maybe we can normalize this and find some solutions — because we are drowning.”

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Gonzalez-Burkle, 51, told me she started sliding underwater fast in May, when she got laid off from her job as the executive assistant to the CEO of a company manufacturing windows and doors. She was the first of 25 people let go by seniority. She went from making $60,000 a year to getting $345 a week in unemployment benefits, she said.

She had a little padding — about $10,000, mostly left to her by her father, who had worked in the fields and then started and sold businesses in indoor swap meets in order to pull his family up. She was able to defer utility payments. But her father’s small legacy was soon gone as she struggled to pay the $1,900 rent on her apartment in Walnut.

She has a lot of work experience, in and outside of politics. At 19, she was appointed a planning commissioner in her hometown of Cudahy, a mostly Latino city in southeast L.A. County. At 27, she ran for Cudahy’s City Council, later serving as vice mayor, and became its first Latina elected. She’d had to drop out of college when she was young and her father was without work. But when she could manage, she’d started taking night classes.

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In 2015, she’d finally gotten her undergraduate degree. In the course of her career, she’d worked as a deputy coalitions director on Meg Whitman’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign and as a deputy director and community liaison in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s L.A. office. She was well connected. She figured she’d have no problem getting a new job fast, especially since she didn’t care about the salary. She just wanted to cover her expenses.

But with so few jobs available and so many people looking for them, she sent out resume after resume with no luck.

Just recently, she landed a job at long last at a mattress manufacturer, she said. But the day before she was due to start, the head of HR called to tell her that the company had to close due to the coronavirus and had no plans to hire again soon.

She may not seem on paper to be a typical person struggling to survive this pandemic, she told me.

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“But this pandemic has really hit me hard. I mean, I have fallen. This is how I learn about people, their suffering,” she told me. “Many politicians in Washington have no idea how we’re suffering. And it doesn’t matter how prepared you are, how much you know, the people that you know, the connections that you have — this is happening to everybody.”

The famous 101 Coffee Shop has closed its doors for good. Known for celebrity sightings and film appearances, it was also a neighborhood joint of a sort unlikely to be replaced.

Gonzalez-Burkle is in the middle of a bitter divorce. She and her estranged husband, who lives in their former home in Victorville, share custody of Gabriel — and she barely has the gas money now to fetch him and drop him off each week, let alone for the trips to divorce court hearings, she said.

She went to one such hearing in Victorville Superior Court in early December and started feeling sick soon after. On Dec. 9, she tested positive for the coronavirus, which she believes she got in the courthouse. (And no, she does not fit the stereotype of the Trump supporter: She follows the science and has been hypervigilant in her mask-wearing, distancing and sanitizing since the pandemic started.)

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By the time she got the test results, she was feeling much worse. That night, she grew weak and confused. She called 911 and no words came out but a voice on the phone said help was on the way.

She woke up at Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center, site of the first L.A. County death from the coronavirus in March. A nurse told her that her heart had stopped. A doctor said he would do everything he could to save her life, she said, but that there was no guarantee. She remained hospitalized nine days. She came home very weak, 40 pounds lighter, she said, because she’d struggled to eat without senses of taste and smell — which recently returned.

She is luckier than others, she said. She has good neighbors and close friends. They stepped in when she was quarantined to bring her groceries and prescriptions. They share what they have, even though many of them are in dire straits too. A friend with three kids, who had to go on food stamps, gave Gonzalez-Burkle some of the food she bought with them. At Christmas, her friends brought her still-warm tamales and presents for Gabriel to add to the two he had — one from herself, one from her mother.

“She’s a remarkable survivor, but her whole world has been turned upside down,” said Leticia Sanchez of Hacienda Heights, who has been her friend since college and who brought her chicken soup and tamales. “I do what I can but there’s only so much I can do,” Sanchez said. Sanchez also lost her job to COVID-19. Her sister’s sick with it. Sanchez and her husband, who still has a job but had to take a 20% pay cut, have had to defer their mortgage payments.

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When Gonzalez-Burkle was 16, she got a scholarship to go to Washington, to study how our government works. One day, she got to go to the White House. She shook President Reagan’s hand. He asked her if she was going to be a Republican. He said, “I bet you will.” She became one. She believes that government should not get in the way, that it should help people be able to help themselves.

Now’s the time, she said, for government to help businesses safely open and survive, so that they can hire people. She needs work. For government to give people the financial assistance to pull themselves back from the brink. She’s tired of teetering.

She told me she feels hope that her fairly elected new president will try to focus right away not on politics but on people in need.

And so do I.


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