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This Xicano Is Leading The Fight Against Corporations & The Coronavirus

Teofilo Reyes
Teofilo Reyes
Who said one person can't make a difference?

Dr. Teofilo Reyes is a man of many talents, a polyglot who speaks several languages, a scientist with a Ph.D. from the University to Chicago and a lifelong social justice advocate who has walked through Central America in the 1990s with Sandinista guerillas, organized as a Brown Beret in Detroit while simultaneously organizing independent labor unions across the globe into mutual aid networks.

Dr. Reyes is now as one of the main directors for the Restaurant Opportunities Center-United (ROC-United) a national workers center on the forefront of the Fight for 15 campaign. Dr. Reyes recently spoke with me about the battle that has erupted across our nation once again centering on workers in the food service industry, major food corporations who are using the current crisis to roll back wage gains and how you, the reader, can help continue the fight for a living wage in the United States. Below is a transcript of our conversation.

Ernesto Mireles: Teo you had an interesting childhood, where do you claim your roots?

Teofilo Reyes: That is a question that I’ve always found a little difficult to answer. I think I fall into this third culture category of people who, because of globalization, grow up in multiple countries, with different backgrounds in a lot of different places. I was born on a farm in central Michigan and my father was an anthropologist from Mexico who was doing some work at ALMA College where he met my mother. My mother wanted me to be born in the US, and six months after I was born, we moved to Mexico City.

I grew up in Mexico City until I was eleven. My parents separated when I was very young. My mother and I lived in Mexico; we did some summer stents in Carrizo Springs, Texas, a summer in Fresno, California. Mostly, I was in Mexico during that time and then my sister was experiencing a lot of trouble in Michigan so we moved up to help her out and we never got back to Mexico. I finished elementary, middle school and high school in Grand Rapids, Michigan. When I was in Mexico, I always felt completely Mexican, but I was also looking back on it, I was extremely privileged. First of all, I was guerito and I had U.S. roots and people loved that. So I was extremely privileged except for people that bullied me specifically about that, but for the most part, I was a hit with all the girls in elementary school.

When we came back to the States I attended an inner city school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, it was mostly Puerto Rican and African-American and I felt very at home. Then I went to this privileged high school and there were a small handful of us that weren’t just white. I never really felt out of place until later on in high school I would start to hear comments, you know, about spics and whatnot. Then I got to college and started meeting a lot of people who spoke Spanish and who had very strong roots. I always, always felt fully Mexican, and then getting into college, I met a lot of people who understood themselves as Xicanos. I felt very welcome in that space. I’m happy to say I’m Xicano, but also Chilango.

Ernesto Mireles: Interesting, Teo, what is your Ph.D. in? Could you explain it for us?

Teofilo Reyes:  Yeah. So yeah, my Ph.D. is in comparative human development, from the University of Chicago. It’s a multi-disciplined disciplinary program that includes anthropology, cultural anthropology, medical anthropology, psychology, which is primarily cultural psychology and also bio psychology which you can understand as behavioral biology and has elements of sociology. It looks at human development across the life course and it approaches it from multiple angles, so from both the individual level, the social level and from the biological level. I applied to that program because I was interested in looking at the evolutionary basis for cooperation.

What I ended up focusing on was oxytocin and how it’s released in our brain and how that is important for bonding, for creating both bonds between individuals who become partners. It’s also very important for creating bonds between parents and their children. When you have an infant, so the big times Oxytocin is released is like when you’re hugging somebody, during orgasm, sometimes during touch your body, will release oxytocin, your pituitary gland, releases Oxytocin. And you have this very positive affect which makes you want to engage in those types of activities. Another time when you have a huge oxytocin release is when you’re engaging with an infant. Infants are major oxytocin stimuli, which is a reason why people love infants.

Dr. Teofilo Reyes

So essentially, I looked at how that evolutionary adaptation could lead to cooperation among individuals who weren’t related. As I started first looking at the question of why certain unions engage in international solidarity and ended up focusing on how parents in interactions with young infants were more willing to be altruistic? I mean, it’s a problematic term, but for people to understand the terminology, how people with young infants might be more altruistic to people they don’t know.

Ernesto Mireles: What did you do? What did you determine?

Teofilo Reyes: I looked at fathers because it’s really hard through the IRB to study oxytocin release in women because it’s the same thing as a Pitocin. Pitocin is an artificial form of oxytocin, which is given to women to induce childbirth. Because of the slight possibility of miscarriage, it’s very difficult to do oxytocin research so I looked at fathers interacting with their infants, comparing them to fathers when they were reading essentially in a newspaper.

I tested them and then measured their oxytocin levels at multiple, multiple, multiple times during this interaction and then looked at how they behaved in an economic experiment, where they were where they needed to give money to someone that they didn’t know and also had them fill out different. Essentially, it was an altruism scale and found that people who had the largest change in their oxytocin, were more likely to give money to people they didn’t know and also scored higher on the self-reported form about their altruistic behavior in the past.

Ernesto Mireles: OK, that’s fascinating, really interesting, especially how it pertains to labor movements or social justice efforts. I mean, that’s.

Teofilo Reyes: The bottom line with that is contingent on your social environment. A lot of your responses are contingent on the social environment and this interaction between the way your body behaves and your environment. If you’re making sure to provide people the right environment, you can really promote cooperative behavior.

Ernesto Mireles How did you get involved in organizing?

Teofilo Reyes: You know, my original education was in Mexico, and I learned about Zapata and Villa, The Revolution, and I learned about the nationalization of the petroleum industry. I learned a lot about U.S. imperialism just going to elementary school in Mexico. When I came to the U.S., it was really easy to see you know social injustices. In high school, I started with a bunch of my fellow students to organize this group, it’s funny name we called it: YES, Youth for the Edification of Society, and we did a lot of solidarity with South Africa promoting The South African Liberation Movement, did a lot of support around the liberation struggle in El Salvador.

We did this march with about one hundred high school students that went to the federal building to try and talk to the congressional representative at the time. It was funny because they didn’t know what to do with us. We got to the federal building. They closed that. They locked the doors before we got there. We had all these high school kids knocking on the door and demanding that they open it up for us. Eventually, they took a couple of us to go meet with the congressman.

Ernesto Mireles: And this was in Grand Rapids, Michigan?

Teofilo Reyes: It was in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Then I went to college and just started organizing again. I started organizing with Xicano students and also against the first Gulf War, and then for improving the rights of Xicano students, and because of that work, getting involved with supporting the great boycott on campus, worked for the United Farm Workers as a community organizer, at the Xicano Development Center. Once I was old enough to be politically active, I’ve always been organizing to some degree with different levels of success.

I sort of stopped organizing to do my degree and I’m very glad I got my degree finished, even though it was a brutal and horrible process, and I don’t know I would recommend it to anybody. Jose Oliva who was working at ROC at the time recruited me, he was actually the first person I organized to support the United Farm Workers strawberry campaign in Chicago. After I got out of graduate school, Jose recruited me to become a researcher with ROC and that’s where I’m at now.

Ernesto Mireles: All right, so what is the situation then with ROC – United and the current relief mobilization that’s happening?

Teofilo Reyes: Well, basically all around this country is fucked, you know, shit appears to be falling apart. ROC’s mission is to improve wages and working conditions for the nation’s 14 million restaurant workers. The last time I checked which was yesterday, there were 46 states that have completely shut down the restaurant industries except for some delivery takeouts, and three states that had limited it. We’re talking 46 out of 50 states where the restaurant industry’s been basically decommissioned. These are mostly people working check to check, in jobs that tend to be minimum wage jobs. Now all of a sudden you’re in a situation where they’re thrown out of their job.

Told, you have to stay at home and that you can’t go out and try to find another job. They got bills to pay; they still got to feed their kids. The need is just unbelievable. Our organizers are talking to people on the phone every day. They’re basically turned into counselors and they’re not trained for that or prepared for that. And we’re trying to talk to people and get them politically moving to support, to get some basic changes. We set up a relief fund to provide some basic financial assistance to people who are hurting and restaurant workers can go to our page ROCUnited.org\relief for help. We very quickly had 9,999 people apply for aid and we paused the collection of aid applications while we worked through the backlog.

ROC is still raising funds, and we’ve been sending funds to people who applied based on a few criteria. One is if they’re undocumented so they don’t have any access to other aid, if they have children or an elderly relative in their care, and if they’re in urgent need of support because they have an eviction notice or some sort of utility bill due. We’re providing them between 100 to 300 based on, you know, checking off those criteria.

We are also giving them a toolkit of actions they can take. In a lot of places, restaurant workers on their own have set up these virtual tip jars to share with the regulars, for example, so we show them information on how to do that. We give them information on how to set up petitions with coworkers if their employers are not being supportive. We also have this national petition drive where we’ve been mobilizing workers at these large corporate chains to force their companies to take responsibility and provide emergency financial aid.

There’s these bills that have passed in Congress, which are relief bills and desperately needed. Normally when that type of shit passes, they’ll do carve outs for small businesses, but here they’ve done carve outs for the largest corporations. Corporations that have five hundred workers have been carved out from a lot of the requirements: they don’t have to provide emergency paid sick leave to workers who are sent home because of the crisis while smaller businesses have to provide up to two weeks of pay? So these large chains don’t have to do shit.

They can let people go and don’t have to claim any responsibility. We’re trying to force those chains to be responsible. Our biggest campaign is right now against Applebee’s. People can email Applebee’s.com, which is transitioning to Applebee’sIsRotten.com. We’ve had workers send over 250,000 emails to Applebee’s to force them to immediately adopt paid sick leave and emergency financial assistance for workers. We’re getting people to pressure Applebee’s to do this, but also telling our people, they can do similar things at the local level because this thing is happening there as well. For example, in Philadelphia, workers at Stevens Star Restaurants and Dave and Busters are being told there is not paid sick leave even though the city has a paid sick leave law in place, these places are telling people we don’t have to pay you anything.

Pressuring restaurants to act in support of their workers and then urging workers to take political action get their voice out there. All these bills at the national level are things ROC has been calling for like the emergency paid sick leave bill. We’ve been calling for inclusion of undocumented workers in these unemployment bills, insurance bills that are passing, pandemic insurance bills, calling for a moratorium on evictions and utility shutoffs which have passed in certain places. Now we’re calling for a right of return as well to make sure people are rehired so businesses don’t use this as an opportunity to get rid of staff they don’t want.

Ernesto Mireles I think this is leading into the next part. How do you think the COVID-19 crisis will help or hurt the fight for wage equity in the United States?

Teofilo Reyes: Part of the problem is the economic collapse that’s come along with the pandemic, the US now has a tremendous amount of unemployment in a very short time. There’s been this huge movement to raise the minimum wage to fifteen, and I don’t think that messaging is going to lose steam. But, if we don’t use this moment to mobilize the masses of people impacted by the pandemic, business is going to use this to push back on rising wages.

The only reason wages have been rising in the past two years is because a lot of states have been raising their minimum wage as a result of the fight for 15, the one fair wage fight. Because of that, there’s been measurable improvement in people’s lives. Now that people are out of work, businesses are going to say, “we’re in a recession. We can’t raise wages. No new businesses will open if they have to pay people more,” which I don’t think is true. Based on everything that we’ve seen, because in previous recessions, the restaurant industry, which has among the lowest wages, is like one of the first to recover.  

Ernesto Mireles: It makes sense, I mean, it’s an immediate gratification thing that people can do. It seems like a very normal thing to do. 

Teofilo Reyes: Right, like I said, we know that restaurants and other businesses do recover. Some lie manufacturing, which was already in a recession before this, take longer. If there’s further cuts and in manufacturing, the only place where there’s going to be opportunity to raise people’s wages is going to be through the service sector. That means we have to keep pushing to make sure people at the lower and the ladder are being pushed up. Food service workers are on the front lines of that fight, along with retail workers, and some public health care workers.

But we really have to double down because it can go either way. We could see a wave of radical mobilizations, which lead to winning Medicaid and Medicare for all. Make sure that everybody that we’re talking about has a base wage of fifteen. Because you hear this talk, people saying, “well, I don’t make fifteen, why should someone get it? Why should they get a raise?” Actually, if they get a raise that means your wage is going to go up because these companies that want to keep you, they’re gonna have to pay you more because they don’t want to lose you.

Ernesto Mireles: Makes sense.

Teofilo Reyes: That’s going to be better for everybody in the long run. But we got to make sure we get the momentum going as soon as we can. We’ve been thinking about what is our best way to engage in this movement. There’s a lot of groups doing the policy work, pushing the policy end and our values. I think we can best serve our members, serve the country and serve the movement by holding these large corporations accountable.

We’ve had tremendous progress in that area with Darden, which is one of the largest full service restaurant chains, includes Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse, Bahama Breeze, Capital Grille, they voluntarily instituted a paid sick leave benefit for all of their workers, which is something we’ve been pushing them to do for years. And they did it. You know, we were able to get them to do that a few weeks ago. Chili’s has set up an emergency support fund for their staff.

Again, these things aren’t perfect, it’s based on seniority in some cases, but it’s still a huge step in the right direction. So we’re trying to break that corporate lobbying facade, because behind the scenes, you know, it’s McDonald’s, it’s Applebee’s using the National Restaurant Association as their tool by lobbying to make sure that they get excluded from these bills. And that’s the tradeoff these corporations push in order to get the big bills passed through. They make sure they’re excluded from it. On our end we are forcing them to comply with those measures. Hopefully that’ll be sufficient to get enough momentum going to have that apply to all large industries.

Ernesto Mireles: Once again, how can people stuck in their homes right now get involved in this effort? And I mean, the second part of that question is why is it important to get involved? I think that you’ve answered that. But if you want to give it one more go at, I think that would be cool.

Teofilo Reyes: Yeah, it’s absolutely important to get involved. This is a moment where we need to be showing engagement. We need to be pushing them because the other side, capital and its representatives are showing what they want and they’re getting what they want. Even these bailout packages are being structured in a way that they’re benefiting capital. They’re getting funds infused into their payroll so they can keep people on staff or they’re getting tax benefits to keep people on payroll. Funds are coming in to aid in emergency unemployment insurance. They’re definitely benefiting.

Ernesto Mireles: Benefitting monetarily and ideologically to the point their message of go back to work and die for your country seems to be resonating with at least a section of the population.

Teofilo Reyes: That’s because they haven’t been hit by the crisis yet. In the places where there’s sort of this idea of, this isn’t real and we can just go back out in public. That’s because they haven’t been hit yet. Their hospitals haven’t been hit yet. Once their hospitals are full of patients and they can’t accept anyone, our healthcare system is stressed as it is. All of a sudden, every bed’s taken up by someone who’s dealing with COVID-19 symptoms. That means that anyone with other problems is not going to get treated, the capacity is not there.

Once you start seeing the hospitals fill up, you know, in Oklahoma and Texas, that’s gonna change pretty quickly. They’re not going to be saying that anymore. They’re not going to be sending their grandparents and older relatives to die. They’re saying that now because it’s happening in New York, it’s happening in California, in Washington. The Right is co-opting this narrative to promulgate this us versus them mentality. That’s another reason why we need to mobilize workers out there to demand they get  the personal protective equipment they need.

Ernesto Mireles Right. Right.

Teofilo Reyes And if they’re sick, guess what happens? They’re like, oh, I better hide the symptom because I need money. I’m probably needed to stay working here. And so this fight lays bare the system, how the system operates, which unfortunately, and I say unfortunately, because what’s happening is absolutely brutal, but it’s fertile ground for organizing and mobilizing people. But we need to step up.

About the author

Ernesto Mireles

Dr. Ernesto Mireles is the author or Insurgent Aztlan: The healing power of cultural resistance (2020) and numerous academic articles. Mireles currently works as a professor of Xicano Studies and Community Organizing at Prescott College, in Prescott, AZ. He is completing a book and documentary titled War of the Flea: Fight for Xicano Studies about the struggle of MEXA students at Michigan State University to create a Xicano Studies program in the 1990s.

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