Veena Hampapur: I think we tend to associate fast food with American nostalgia. 

Sample audio: I want 30 sliders, 5 french fries, and 4 large cherry cokes. I want the same. 

Sample audio: You want to do something fun? You want to go to Taco Bell?

Sample audio: You have your own McDonald’s? No way! 

Saba Waheed: There’s a nostalgia towards it because it’s an idea more than anything else and sometimes that brand and that name shields what the actual business structure is like. 

Veena Hampapur: From the UCLA Labor Center, this is Re:Work. I’m Veena Hampapur.

Saba Waheed: And I’m Saba Waheed.

Veena Hampapur: We’re at a point now where we are more than two years into the pandemic and I think it’s important that we’re taking a little time to focus on the fast food industry. It’s consistently shocking to me how many issues there are, from wage theft, to sexual harassment, violence and safety issues, and now most recently the pandemic.

Saba Waheed: Yeah, for many people it’s not just your first job, it is THE job and there really were like different COVIDs for different people. Certain communities had to continue to go into these largely public facing jobs and then there was the people who are able to work from home because there was a workforce out there that was continuing to keep our neighborhoods and our cities running, you know.

Monica (Spanish): Yo me llamo Monica y soy una de las trabajadoras de investigación aquí en el centro laboral de UCLA.  

Monica (English): My name is Monica and I am one of the researchers here at the UCLA Labor Center. (not translated in the episode)

Saba Waheed: That’s Monica. She was a UCLA student who interned with the Labor Center and then came on to become a research analyst. 

Veena Hampapur: And Monica’s mother is a fast food worker herself so she had heard about the industry on a personal level. In this episode, Monica speaks with Maurico who lives in San Diego and has been working in fast food for many years. 

Mauricio (Spanish): Cuando se abrió la pandemia, cerró el comedor. Todo el restaurant cerraron el comedor porque pues tenía que llegar el público…  

Mauricio (English): When the pandemic started, the dining room was closed and it was very quiet inside. It was only cars, drive-thru. So me and many others basically had no work. They gave us a few hours, but it was a difficult situation. I wasn’t the only one who was affected, but that’s no consolation. If the team had 30, 36 people, they only needed 20, or 15, no more. There was that worry about infecting another person, right? And all of us, we started wearing masks, we were all following the regulatory health measures, to avoid getting infected. But quite a few people were affected, in some way.

I said to my colleagues, “When COVID broke out, I wanted to cry.” And they said, “Mauricio, we cried too many times.” 

Veena Hampapur: Mauricio ended up in a tough position. There was the very real threat of COVID-19 and getting sick and then there was also the struggle to pay the bills.

Mauricio (Spanish): Yo te quiero decir que– mija yo no me quedé aquí: “Ah, pues, no tengo trabajo…”

Mauricio (English): What I want to say to you, my child, is that I didn’t just sit idle. “Ah well, I don’t have any work? Ah, okay, I’ll just be here waiting ‘til they reopen.” No. I looked for work– thank God I had the opportunity. A man who works as a gardener will say to me, “Are you working tomorrow? If you have a day off, come work with me.” It’s harder, it’s more difficult because I’m not 20 anymore [laughs]. But I went and worked with the gardener, and I managed to cover my daily expenses. The manager of the morning shift at the fast food restaurant said, “You’re crazy, Don Mauricio. On your day off, you go to work with the gardener, and the gardening, it’s more difficult, it’s harder.” “Well, yes, but I like the money.” There’s the need to have a financial situation that is healthier, a little more comfortable. So I don’t rest. 

Saba Waheed: And then in the summer of 2021…

Archival audio: We begin tonight with the oppressive heat wave in the West intensifying the already critical drought.

Archival audio: It’s the fourth heat wave since Memorial Day and follows the country’s hottest June on record.

Archival audio: Tonight life threatening triple digit temperatures are gripping much of the West. 32 million residents from California to Montana under excessive heat alert…

Veena Hampapur: Those of us who live in California have gotten used to each year getting ready for fire season, right? But we don’t always think about how that impacts those who have to work in the heat. If you don’t have air conditioning inside when there is this record heat, it can really damage your health and well-being.   

Mauricio (Spanish): Más de 100 grados. Y era tremendo. Era tremendo, porque estaba caliente afuera, adentro estaba peor.

Mauricio (English): It was over 100 degrees. It was incredible because it was hot outside, but inside, it was worse. And at least outside you get fresh air, the breeze from being outside. Ah, it was horrible. I would take two or three undershirts to wear under my uniform so that when they were soaked, I could take one off. I would go to the bathroom, get changed and put on the dry one and so on. There were colleagues of mine who fainted. I attribute it to the suffocating heat. And the manager knew about it and she said, “Well, Mauricio, I told the owner, but he isn’t doing anything.” I shouted, “This is a branch of hell. It’s not a branch, I think it’s actually hell in here.” And nobody said anything. Nothing was resolved. It was a very hard situation to withstand those extreme temperatures, for all of us. Even before I knew about the Fight for $15 movement, I was speaking up. I don’t know why, maybe because I was fed up.

Saba Waheed: So how did Mauricio end up here in San Diego working in fast food well into his 60s?

Veena Hampapur: His story actually goes back to the silver mines in Taxco. This is a colonial town in the mountains about two and half hours from Mexico City.

Mauricio (Spanish): Okay Mónica. Por lo que te vi ahorita en el teléfono y por la edad, pues, ah, no te has imaginado que es una vida 55 años atrás porque entonces en ese tiempo yo tenía siete años.

Mauricio (English): Okay, Mónica. Because from what I saw just now on the telephone, and your young age, ah, it would be impossible for you to imagine what life was like 55 years ago. I am from Mexico, from the state of Guerrero. 

Taxco, Guerrero is a mining town, and even now many of the streets are dirt roads. The only one paved is the highway to Iguala. But the truth is, it was a beautiful town. There are songs that they sing about this. There is a song that’s called “Taxco of my loves”, And that’s what it was exactly, that little town was a delight. You could go out at whatever time of day you wanted to. When I was young I went out to have fun. Back then they had dances that would finish at 3 or 4 in the morning. We would be out on the street, and there would be no problems. You might run into someone there [laughs] who was drunk, but nothing worse than that. Nowadays, the town is scared. Eh, these days at dawn there are dead bodies, missing heads. There has been shocking violence. Bad people have taken over the town. 

Veena Hampapur: Taxco is really famous for its silver and a significant portion of all the silver that’s ever been mined in the world comes from Mexico’s mountains. And these days, as has happened with a lot of other mining industries, they rely a lot more heavily on machinery rather than human labor.

Mauricio (English): My father worked in the mine in Taxco, Guerrero, which they say is the silver hub. I grew up in an environment where there were lots of children. In those days, families were big. There were nine of us. [laughter]. Later, two of my siblings died, so there were seven of us left, and we grew up poor because a miner’s salary wasn’t enough to look after such a big family. There was a lot we didn’t have. There wasn’t any electricity in the place where I lived. I realized that my neighbors’ financial reality was different than my family’s. They had nicer things, better toys, better clothes. That made me feel bad, but I couldn’t express that. 55 years ago, it wasn’t like now, you weren’t free to express your feelings or your thoughts to your mom and dad; back then you had to stay quiet, and you had to do as you are told. So growing up was difficult, but we made our way out. Mom and Dad gave us what they could. And later, when you grow up, well, you look for how to make it on your own. You start understanding how life works. And I don’t blame my parents for a sad or difficult childhood. They are a product of what they got. I think that if it hadn’t happened that way, maybe the Mauricio who is speaking to you today, he would have gone down another road. 

Mauricio (Spanish): Quería ser médico, no sé por qué, pero quería ser médico. Porque había mucha querencia médica en ese pueblo, pero resulta que…

Mauricio (English): I wanted to be a doctor because there was a real lack of medical care in that town. But things don’t turn out how you would like, right? My father, because of the financial situation, he said to me, “I can’t give you an education because I don’t know when I’m going to get my money’s worth with you. I don’t have enough money to invest in your education.” And he would often repeat that. And this causes an emotional conflict that starts shutting you down. I finished high school through a lot of hard work. Today my studies are something else – I study humans here amongst us [laughs]. I like it because human beings are very conflictive. Often things can be solved simply through waiting, just by being patient, just by accepting reality and accepting the situation as it is. And instead, we get angry. We throw tantrums. I think that these things even make us sick; but humans are like that. 

Veena Hampapur: These days Mauricio is basically a social scientist. He’s interested in the way humans act, and feel, and associate with one another. In Mauricio’s teen years, his path was determined by the need to support his family.

Mauricio (English): I went to work in the mine for about eight years, then I went to work with silver, and that was the end of me wanting to be a doctor. 

Since my dad worked in the mine, he went and talked to the manager. I was only 16 years old, and they got me in. When I went to the office where you had to go to do the paperwork to start working, the secretary said, “He’s a child, he isn’t old enough to work.” And another one said, “These are the orders from Manager Martinez, you need to do it.” 

Saba Waheed: What I really appreciate in hearing Mauricio talk is just his curiosity for how we relate to each other. This really came through for me in this story he told of his son.

Mauricio (Spanish): Como toda persona, crecí, me casé, mis dos hijos…

Mauricio (English): Like all people, I grew up, I got married, I had my two children. We lived at the elementary school. They let us live there and take care of the school, and we didn’t pay rent. My son, my boy, they would make me pick him up from kindergarten. They would say, “Don Mauricio, your son’s behavior is a problem,” – not rude, but he was a restless kid. So, I came back from kindergarten holding my son’s hand, and I asked him, “Son, what are we going to do?” He didn’t have much hair, but he pushed it up as if it were in the way. He said, “Look, Dad, I don’t know, but for now, why don’t you buy me a drink because I’m thirsty.” I really like my son’s answer, “I don’t know anything.” As if he was saying, “This is your problem. I’m thirsty, get me a drink.” And I always remember this anecdote from my life in the town of Taxco, Guerrero.

Veena Hampapur: Mauricio ended up following in his father’s footsteps working in the silver mines. And down the line, his son took up working with silver too, but in a different way. 

Mauricio (English): At some point, I left the mine and I went to work with silver. They call it “Taxco Artisans”, but to me the better word is jewelers. 

My son doesn’t remember this, but I took him to the workshop with me so that he would learn. His mother said, “Don’t take him [laughs], let him be a child.” And I said, no, that he had to start learning from a young age. 

And now, my son is working in Cancun, because people there want fine jewelry. I say to him, “Son, I’m just sitting here with my jaw on the floor. I wouldn’t even know how to start one of these pieces.” And he says laughing, “Well it was what you taught me.” That’s the way things go. What I consider to be the force that drives every human being is one’s family, not being alone. Strength is that importance that human beings give to each other, to show that they matter. Strength is family: children, grandchildren – my grandchildren, they’re a blast [laughs]. They are my strength. 

Mauricio (Spanish): La familia, los hijos, los nietos. Oh, algún día te voy a enseñar mis nietos. Son una chulada [risa]. Son mi fortaleza. 

Veena Hampapur: The town Mauricio had grown up in had really changed. It had become more dangerous. 

Saba Waheed: There were issues with extortion rackets, with drug trafficking, the silver mines are shutting down and there is just not the same kind of work available. 

Veena Hampapur: Eventually, Mauricio decided he needed to move to the United States.

Mauricio (English): Twenty-five years ago, 95% of the people at Taxco, Guerrero flourished. I stayed for a long time. And then the bad people began to take ownership of the situation. Many left for Querétaro. Many left for Tijuana. It was the lack of job opportunities that finally led me to leave Taxco and come to the United States. I will have been in the U.S. 15 years in September. When I arrived I worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant for about four years, five years. It was a job that consumed my entire day. We started at 9 in the morning and finished at 10 o’clock at night. And they did not pay us by the hour, they paid us a salary. And I didn’t get a day off. Then getting to know more people, they told me, “At the restaurant where I work, we have different shifts.” I started working at a major fast food chain. And then afterwards I looked for another job. Now I’m working in two franchises of the same fast food chain. Since the place is busy, and there’s a lot of customers, you have to work hard, work very hard. I like it because it puts food on my table, right? I have a habit of being at work five minutes early. The first thing I do is the fryers – check that everything is okay, clean them. After cleaning the fryer, you have to go out and sweep because there are a lot of bars, there are a lot of other restaurants nearby, and it’s a trash dump on the streets all around my workplace. After that, you have to take out the garbage, you have to get rid of the cardboard from the restaurant. After that you have to clean the bathrooms, you have to mop the dining room floors, clean the windows. If I’m near the door, you have to open the door for the customers. Make sure everything is as good as possible. That’s going to be from 6am to 9, 9:30. Then I’m on the fryer, and the work is more focused on one thing. I stay there until 12 or 1, and then I go over to the other restaurant where I start at 2. That’s a normal day without getting into the issues that can come up. The truth is, there are people who come in – I don’t know if they are high or drunk – but they can be very aggressive. From time to time, they do come to the restaurant, and there is a danger of getting hurt.

Saba Waheed: Fast food restaurants has actually become a critical infrastructure for the unhoused population, very much delivering a service that the cities have failed to provide and we have to think about how fast food workers are actually frontline workers in the ongoing housing crisis.

Mauricio (Spanish): Los trabajos de comida rápida siempre van a tener deficiencias y los trabajadores van a estar…

Mauricio (English): Normally, fast food jobs are always going to have shortcomings. And the workers are not going to be entirely happy. They’ll be working out of sheer necessity for the money. We have to do it, right? 

Certain problems in fast food restaurants are very common. They don’t give you your breaks on time. One day it was so late and I said to them, “Oh, when you decide I’m hungry, you send me for half an hour break.” They had forgotten that they had to send me to my break. And they reacted, “No, go on, go.” I said, “No, I’m not going now. I’m going to go home.” And I left. In the restaurant where I work in the afternoon, everyone knows that the manager’s nieces get a lot of favoritism, and we can’t do anything. In a restaurant, there is always something to do. You can’t stand still, you can’t just be on your phone. You can’t text during work hours. But with these two women, one goes to the bathroom and the other goes to the breakroom to talk on the phone. I call it corruption and the worker is too scared to say something, he is afraid that he will lose his shifts, that he will lose hours. The issues are almost always the same. The owner, the boss, always wants to make money, and he doesn’t want to invest to improve the place. We have a fryer with three compartments, but only two compartments work. And when it’s busy, it’s terrible because they overload the fryer and it’s a smokehouse; but the owner doesn’t want to buy a new fryer. Now that we earn one more dollar, they no longer want to hire more employees. Previously there were five to seven of us serving the customers. Nowadays there are fewer of us. It’s because they don’t want to pay more hours. 

Saba Waheed: Most of the fast food industry is a franchise system and you have a parent company who is sometimes called the franchiser and those are the companies’ names that we know of: the McDonald’s, the Burger Kings, the Jack in the Boxes. But they actually are separate from the folks who are actually running the individual sites. If I, as a franchisee, I don’t give one of my workers a meal break, that’s all on me. That franchiser above is not responsible for my actions. At the same time, that franchiser company has a lot of control over a whole other array of things in my business which puts pressure on me in terms of what the cost is to run my business. This model actually means that you get higher rates of different kinds of labor violations in the industry. 

Mauricio (Spanish): Vino aquí a mi casa un amigo y empecé a platicarle. ¿“Cómo te ha ido Mau? Cómo te va en tu trabajo?” Y yo empecé a platicarle…

Mauricio (English): A friend came to my house and we started to talk. He asked, “How has it been for you, Mau? How is work going?” And I began to tell him about what we were going through at my work with the high temperatures. He said to me, “We can help you resolve this issue.” The next day they were already calling me, “Let’s see, Mauricio, you experience things like this and that at work?” “Yes.” So, more questions, more information, “Oh man,” I said to myself, “this is serious.” A few days later the people from the Fight for $15 arrived outside the restaurant, and the manager came up to me and said, “Don Mauricio, do you know about these people?” And I stood up in front of her and said, “Yes, I do know those people, those people are with me. I’m one of those people,” I said. “And right now, at this moment, I’m going to leave, and I’m going to go and protest with them.” All she said to me was just, “Okay.” And I left to tell them that I was part of the protest, part of the Fight for $15 movement. My friend had said to me, “We can help you.” And look, they were there with me. 

Veena Hampapur: Mauricio also draws inspiration from leaders of the past.

Mauricio (English): You need to talk to people, you need to invite them, you have to motivate them to join the movement, so that they really understand why fast-food workers need to have a labor union, that they need one voice, that we need to have a representative. We learned a little bit of history about César Chávez. César Chávez revolutionized the life of many farmers. It made a hugely positive impact. And I realized, today there are half a million of us, there are even more of us than in that protest led by César Chávez. The difference is that not everyone is awake, we need to wake everyone up, go to our colleagues, go from town to town and say to them, “Hey, wake up, wake up. Don’t be afraid. Come on, join us.” Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have a dream.” Today it may be a dream, but it can be a reality. With the help of people like you, I think we can do it. “Si se puede, yes we can.” 

Archival audio: What do we want? 15! When do we want it? Now! What do we want? 15! When do we want it? Now!

Saba Waheed: You know what really comes up is what it means for workers and franchisees to have a voice at the table and really thinking about public policy solutions that place workers needs at the center and puts their voices first in terms of what should be happening in the industry.

Mauricio (Spanish): Hija, pues no sé, yo te oigo– ya me familiaricé ahorita con este tiempo que llevamos, ya me familiaricé, siento que…

Mauricio (English): My child, – I feel like I know you after this time that we’ve been together, that we’ve been talking. The truth is that I feel part of a great movement – I feel that I am not alone and just as I feel it, I would like with all my heart that all the fast food workers feel that. My hope is that the Fight for $15 becomes something huge. That there is a proposal to make AB257 law to support all fast-food workers. This would be my dream. But it is not a long-term dream. That can and will be done, right? By the people. 

But yes, I would like to be Mexico’s Pancho Villa, but here in the Fight for $15. And Pancho Villa always inspired people. The only thing I want is for them to say, “Here comes the Fight for $15. Here comes Mau leading the way.” That’s what I want. Hopefully it will be soon. I’m going to put it like this to finish it up. Each human being, we are all the same, because you and I and everyone around us has had serious problems, we have had sadness, we have had failures. What we need is time so that every human being can get to where he wants to be, to achieve his goals. Be a person that perhaps is different than the people around you. My child, I don’t want to be remembered with sadness. I would like just one person who says, “Hey, I knew Mau. And that old man impacted me.” 

Mauricio (Spanish): No necesito los 500, medio millón de gente que me agradezca. Una persona que diga, “Hey, [conozco?] ese viejo. Y ese viejo influyó. Yo.”

Saba Waheed: A special thanks to Mauricio Juarez for sharing his story. And thanks to the staff of Fight for 15 Adriana Cortes Luna and Isabel Urbano and SEIU staff Adam Weisberg for setting up this interview. Find out more about their work at And to read more about the fast food industry, you can check out our Labor Center reports at

Veena Hampapur: You’re listening to Re:Work, which is a production of the UCLA Labor Center. This episode was produced by Monica Macias, Veena Hampapur and Saba Waheed. Sound design and editing by Veena Hampapur. Mixing by Aaron Dalton. Translation by International Contact. English dubbing by Joe Hernandez.

Saba Waheed: Until next time, rethink, rework.