The Year of the Mask

At this point, face masks have become an almost unconscious part of our routine. The same way we wake up and brush our teeth, we grab our face mask (and hand sanitizer) before walking out the door. Earlier this year though, when doctors and other health officials started recommending the use of face masks to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, there was skepticism and resistance, which was further incensed by President Trump’s snide comments and blatant refusal to abide by health official’s recommendations. For a short while, there was disbelief too, the idea that this was something that was going to impact our daily lives–even as we saw it wreak havoc in other countries–didn’t seem real. Who could have expected we’d be facing a poorly-handled pandemic and as a result, prematurely burying our dead? 

And yet here we are, continuously adapting to change as we face it; shaping it in ways that help us and the community. These days that includes making and re-making face masks. As they obscure most of our face, their accessibility, especially to the Deaf and Hard Hearing Community, who often rely on facial cues to communicate, is an issue – which is where clear masks, like the one by Millicent Simmonds, come in. Oftentimes, it’s less about comfort, and more about how we can survive this, how we can make them more bearable, more accessible or even more fun to wear. 

For Lanna, a newly-launched small business by the eco-conscious Puero Rican duo Laura I. Cintrón Ramos and Anna G. Zayas Zuazaga, whose focus is to put sustainability to practice and help support local stores, making reusable masks was imperative. “We noticed there were disposable face masks everywhere,” they tell Emperifollá. “It was one pandemic inside another.”

Launching a business in the middle of the pandemic wasn’t easy. There was a lot of anxiety around store closures, curfew and general pandemic fear. “Pero nos tiramos de pecho,” Cintrón said laughingly. “Making face masks was a trial and error, until we found the perfect style: origami face masks with the option of elastic or ribbons.” As Boricuas, who love to be emperifollá, Cintrón and Zayas focus on sourcing 100% cotton fabric in fun patterns and solid colors. Although they haven’t been able to present their products the way they want to, they note the support has been incredible.

Using pretty face masks is one way to assimilate our new normal. There is something about finding things to feel good about – matching our mask to our socks, wearing them as clashing prints or grabbing and going to practice our favorite hobby. For Daija Moss, a Black Ecuadorian roller skater in Los Angeles, face masks haven’t necessarily impacted the way she skates. “I go get sweaty and sweat will collect around my mouth in the mask over time so I’ll have to take a break and go somewhere where there’s no people around to just air out my mask before I can go skate again,” she says. But that’s about it.

With restricted outside activities to enjoy during the pandemic, the itching need to go out and move our bodies grows and grows. Moss, who has been roller skating since 2019 when she felt in her spirit that skating would change her life, says it’s given her something to look forward to on a daily basis. “I personally felt kind of lost not having some kind of routine and it affected my mental health a lot, but I supplemented that work routine loss with a daily skate routine,” Moss tells Emperfiollá. “In turn, I’ve learned to prioritize doing those things that make me happiest and stressing less about working 24/7.”

And through skating Moss has found a chosen family, though it’s changed a lot during the pandemic. “We’ve had to speak up more about real issues outside of skating which has created a lot of tension and divide, but from that we’ve been able to create a genuine community that uplifts and supports each other no matter what.”

Community has truly been the pillar holding us up during this crisis. In times the government  fails us, especially the Black, Brown and Indigenous communities, it’s people that help people. It’s everyday people that show up. Community fridges, mutual aid funds, delivering groceries, donations – you name it. Essential workers have also taken the brunt of the risk, being in the frontlines. For nurses like Yolanda Cortés Acevedo, who has been working at the Hospital San Carlos Borromeo in Moca, Puerto Rico for 23 years, it has been particularly grueling. “We’re always working with anxiety and depression because most people with Covid don’t make it and they die alone. Eldery people especially. We end a shift thinking, ‘Will they make it?’ and start a shift asking, ‘Who died?’”, Cortés tells Emperifollá. 

It’s not just an emotionally exhausting job, it’s also physically demanding. Cortés shares that whereas before she only wore masks to visit patients in isolation, now she has to wear shoe covers, a gown, two or three surgical face masks, a beanie, a hair net, a face shield and gloves. “When you leave a room, you have to spray alcohol all over your body and wash your hands. I always carry an extra bottle in my pocket just in case,” Cortés says. 

Wearing that many masks for such long periods of time and through severe temperature changes has also affected her skin. At the beginning of the pandemic, it was the skin on her nose that was getting especially tender. For that, she’s had to get creative. “My husband Yango cut me some guata from liquid foam in thin strips to put under the mask, where it lays on my nose. That helped!,” she says. “The little gauzes we use on small ulcers work too. These days, I might wear a cotton mask as the first mask, and then layer that with two more surgical masks.”

As 2020 comes to a close and the COVID-19 virus continues mutating, it becomes clear 2021 will also inevitably become another “Year of the Mask” (at least for the foreseeable future). As for us? We will continue to adapt to change as it comes, help each other because no one else will, and find new ways to find comfort and joy in the process. Seguimos.

Stephanie N. Stoddard Cortés

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