LOS ANGELES – He starts his shift before dawn working three industrial fryers at a frozen food factory. Jose Morales lifts a basket of burritos out of one vat of oil, hangs it to dry and dunks another in, all day juggling hot metal that has left mottled scars on his inner arms.
After work, he guides his 30-year-old stepdaughter Sandy Vazquez in a wheelchair through an out-patient clinic in Willowbrook. Jose is well short of 5 feet, his slight stature common in the part of Mexico where he grew up, where indigenous Nahua blood runs deep.
While he can barely see over Sandy's head as he pushes, he has always been the big man in her life, the one who took her to Toys R Us to get her first princess Barbie dolls, the one who chased her tormentors away — and who never once questioned her when she said she was a girl.
For Jose and his wife, Reyna, their transgender daughter brought out an iron sense of purpose: they had to protect her until she found her own safe place.
They are a tight knot of a family mounting a bare-bones battle for the American Dream from an apartment next to the Century Freeway in South Los Angeles. In recent years, Sandy had starting to feel comfortable going out to parties with cousins and friends.
Her parents hoped she might be able to find a job and, some day, a partner who loved her.
The last year battered those hopes. The family caught COVID-19 in December and Reyna almost died of it before recovering. And in May, Sandy faced the prospect of losing her foot and lower leg from an infection.
Mortality has haunted them ever since with the dreaded question: What will she do when they're gone?
Jose and Reyna met 26 years ago as they sewed shirts and dresses at a garment factory in downtown L.A. He had come to California a decade before, escaping an austere existence in the small city of Izúcar de Matamoros in the southern state of Puebla. His father had left the family when he was a baby, and his mother, unable to feed Jose and his brother, eventually indentured them to a local store owner. Morales was unloading boxes and arranging shelves at age 7 and never got more than four years of school. He joined the Army at 17 and came out two years later just as poor as he started.