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Tamale Lady Is Caught Up In Coronavirus Massive Shutdown

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Coronavirus is causing monumental disruptions to American businesses as millions of people are forced to stay home. Among the hardest hit will be workers who rely on public events. That is everyone from parking attendants to food vendors. NPR's Eric Westervelt has the story of one businesswoman.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Even against the archetype of the striving immigrant, Alicia Villanueva stands out. When she moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2000 from Mexico, she was broke. She raised her two kids while working three jobs. She cleaned homes. She cared for people with a disability. And in between, she'd peddle her homemade tamales around Oakland and Berkeley, Calif.

ALICIA VILLANUEVA: Well, I'd just steam my tamales, go through the street, knocking doors on my neighborhood - you know, visiting all the body shops and beauty shops.

WESTERVELT: Her pork, chicken, vegetarian and pumpkin tamales from her native Mazatlan were a big hit. Her secret sauce is, well, her secret sauce. She would funnel most of her modest profit back into ingredients for the next day's tamales while readying to work those two other jobs.

VILLANUEVA: More or less, like, 11 p.m., I start to cook again. And I finish, like, maybe 3 a.m. And then I sleep, like, two hours.

WESTERVELT: Enduring sleep deprivation and hardship eventually paid off. She was picked by a local incubator that helps female and minority small business owners grow. Slowly, hers did. Cue the immigrant success story music or at least the Golden State Warriors sound system. Last fall, Villanueva's Tamales Los Mayas was picked to be one of the local eats vendors at San Francisco's new 18,000-seat Chase Center, the Warriors' new home.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Get up on your feet, and greet your 2019-2020 Golden State Warriors.

(APPLAUSE)

VILLANUEVA: I can't believe it. You know, like, from that point to now is, like, we are cooking maybe, per month, like 40,000 tamales, more or less.

WESTERVELT: It's kind of the American dream.

VILLANUEVA: It is. It is, yeah. I love this country very much.

WESTERVELT: That love is still strong, but you know where this is going. Tamales Los Mayas today, like so many other small businesses, is in serious trouble. The Chase Center is now shuttered, and her other contracts with a school district, a convention center, big tech companies - everything now, she says, everything is canceled.

It all happened so suddenly, she says. I'm fighting to survive now. I'm still in shock.

VILLANUEVA: Just from the morning to the night, you know, like, honestly, we didn't expect this hard situation. It's our biggest stress right now because first thing that I really care right now is my employees and my family.

WESTERVELT: Like many small businesses, she has little cash reserved for emergencies. Two servers of hers from the Chase Center are now out of work. She says they've called to ask if she has any work on the catering and food prep side of her business; she does not. And now there is a Bay Area-wide shelter-in-place order that has halted all nonessential travel and business. She's already had to cut the hours of her 25 employees in half just to keep them on a reduced payroll. Maria Ortiz (ph) is one of Villanueva's long-term employees.

MARIA ORTIZ: (Through interpreter) I'm really worried. I certainly feel the difference in my paycheck, but my boss hasn't fired me. She's giving me some hours, and I'm here.

WESTERVELT: The Warriors and many other pro sports teams and scores of players have all pledged money to support their hourly arena workers during the shutdown. But for arena contractors like Villanueva, there may be even less of a safety net. Her only lifeline today - a private school in the South Bay wants 200 grab-and-go tamales daily, at least for now.

VILLANUEVA: It's hard. But I'm thinking, like, maybe this can come again good. And yeah, I'm going to work so hard to survive and that my business be safe.

WESTERVELT: I was working so much, Villanueva says, I didn't have time to make a Plan B. If I have to, I'll go back to knocking on doors with my tamales, she says, when that is allowed again.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Hayward, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDBOOK'S "UNKNOWN DESIRE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.