The Mexican frontline healthcare workers

Besides coronavirus, female healthcare workers face another obstacle in Mexico: sexism

Photos show the bruised faces of Mexican female healthcare workers on the frontlines of coronavirus
Mexican photographer Santiago Arau potrayed the faces of healthcare workers - Photo: Courtesy of Santiago Arau
English 03/06/2020 17:31 Néstor Ramírez Vega Mexico City Actualizada 12:09
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When Digna Velázquez wakes up, the world is still submerged in darkness. At 3:30, she begins to get ready to begin her workday as a nurse at the Hospital for Specialties of the Siglo XXI National Medical Center where she treats patients with coronavirus.

She lives with her mother, a woman with COPD who recently celebrated her 94th birthday. For now, her home is also inhabited by her niece and her sister, who also works at the November 20 Medical Center but in the department of Patients Admission and Exit, so cleaning measures at home have become essential.

After working eight hours, a period during which she cannot eat or drink anything nor go to the bathroom, due to the fight against SARS-CoV-2, she gets ready to return home. She takes off her medical equipment in a special area and her face is left with marks from the protective mask.

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Despite the long hours of despair and dehydration, the woman keeps a smile on her face, the same that was captured by photographer Santiago Arau.


“I left tired and worried, [however] outside the COVID area, I found a dynamic and joyful man who asked me ‘A picture?’”

“I took off everything I had from inside, smiled, and said ‘Yes.’ He told me how to pose for the picture but I told him ‘In my ear’ He asked ‘What’s wrong with your ear?” and I answered ‘It hurts’.”

“He took the picture of my ear and I left very happily because I healed [my wound]” remembers Velázquez.

“There is not a single day in which [Digna] doesn’t arrive home with a smile,” asserted her niece, Gabriela Vázquez.


When she gets home, she puts her keys and shoes in bleach, while her uniform goes directly to the washing machine and the nurse takes a shower.

“She wears masks at home every day, just like my mother. They never take them off, mainly because of my grandma,” says Gabriela to EL UNIVERSAL.

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Digna Velázquez, just as the other healthcare workers at the Siglo XXI Medical Center, was photographed when she was leaving her work by Santiago Arau, the author of Territories and whose portraits have become part of the Mural for Healthcare Heroes of the Mexican Institute for Social Security (IMSS).

The creator – who donated his pictures to the IMSS – witnessed the labor of healthcare workers while taking care of patients infected with COVID-19

Arau told EL UNIVERSAL that doctors and mentally exhausted for they experience a daily emotional toll, although, he says, they are also happy for they are fulfilling their duty despite their working conditions.


“This is our job: the effort and dedication we’re giving every day to try to control the pandemic.

“It’s not easy, we have bad days and others even worse. There are life stories of every single one of our patients that affect us emotionally, but we know that we must remain strong to be well for them because inside, there is only the patient and us,” said nurse Isabel Vázquez Urbano in a letter to Arau.

The portraits of the medical personnel have reached several people, both through social networks and through the Mural to Healthcare Heroes.

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The goal was for each healthcare worker to be recognized for their labor.

Nevertheless, what has moved the photographer the most is not to exhibit his work but the acceptance and the messages sent to all those fighting COVID-19, for even though people do not feed on applause, gratefulness is a kind of boost and a much needed break to continue working.


Nurse Vázquez says that her work is love toward others for, more than quality care, she asserts that she wants to listen and show patients that they are not a number in a bed, but people who need to be cared for and to be understood.

In his most recent collage, Arau only published photos of female healthcare workers for it is also a tribute since, besides their working conditions, they must face another obstacle: sexism in Mexico.

In recent weeks, healthcare workers have been the victims of attacks in different parts of the country.

Isabel Vázquez mentions that they are “a bit wounded by society and [due to the rejection for] wearing our beautiful, elegant, and distinguished uniform.” She stresses that they are not a hazard but people with the strength to help despite their own risk.


The relatives of the women who were portrayed by Arau recognized them in the pictures. Digna’s niece told her about her appearance in the photographer’s tribute. The nurse was left astounded because through those images, they can tell Mexico that they are taking care of the patients, that they are giving everything, even their lives.

Doctor Eneida is my sister and a source of pride for our family. She left Sinaloa many years ago to go after her dreams.

“We ask God every day to take care of her so that she can keep doing what she loves the most: relieve patients from pain,” as wrote Ximena Cárdenas to the Mexican photographer.

For her part, gastroenterologist Aleida Bautista thanked people for their comments: “They encourage me to continue helping during this pandemic as best as I can. My husband has been an inspiration for me, for her works in the COVID area.”

Both in hospitals and temporary units, medical personnel risk their lives to take care of patients in a country that, as of June 2, has 97,326 COVID-19 cases, and 10,637 fatalities.

Amid the health emergencies and while their health is at risk, medical experts return home with a smile, for they are fulfilling their mission: saving Mexico.

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