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For a grocery store employee, a hard life filled with work and happiness, suddenly gone due to coronavirus

She escaped poverty in Guatemala and brought joy to many, and has became the state’s first grocery store worker to succumb to the coronavirus

Vitalina Williams, the first grocery worker to die of coronavirus in Massachusetts.
Vitalina Williams, the first grocery worker to die of coronavirus in Massachusetts.David Williams

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In many ways, Vitalina Williams had the typical immigrant story.

She grew up poor in an indigenous Mayan region in Guatemala, the fifth of 10 children, and helped raise her younger siblings. Around the age of 18, she left to work in Guatemala City, bringing clothes and shoes for the family on her monthly visits home. In her mid-30s, she came to the United States, planning to work for a few years and go back.

But in 1998, while she was walking to the train station in Salem, she met someone, drawing him in, he said, with her warm, generous nature. It turned out the two fit together perfectly, right down to their taste in brownies: She liked the crispy edges, he liked the gooey center.

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They got married, and bought a two-family house near the water. They worked hard: He stocked shelves at a Market Basket in Danvers; she ran the register at a Market Basket in Salem and checked customers’ receipts at the door at a Walmart in Lynn, working 60 to 70 hours a week — but they had a good life. She grew orchids and tomatoes. Her husband adored her. Money was tight, and work was hard, but they were happy.

Then the coronavirus pandemic struck. And suddenly, Vitalina was gone.

Grocery store workers have been held up as heroes amid this crisis, but long before they entered our collective consciousness as they risked their lives to feed the masses, the Vitalinas of the world toiled in anonymity, shuffling from one shift to another, struggling to make ends meet in an economy that doesn’t seem to value the service they provide. And Vitalina was one of the lucky ones, finding steady work that allowed her to save up enough money to buy a home.

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Vitalina Williams, 59, died April 4, after spending a week on a ventilator in a Salem hospital. Her husband of 19 years, David Williams, who hasn’t developed any symptoms and hasn’t been tested, was quarantined at home. Because of the insidious nature of the virus, he couldn’t be with or even talk to his wife, a vivacious woman he liked to describe as having a “bear hug of love” on life, and vice versa. So in the end, as with so many victims of this terrible virus, Vitalina died alone.

Vitalina appears to be the first grocery store worker in Massachusetts to succumb to COVID-19, which has taken the lives of nearly 600 people across the state. A number of supermarket employees have died around the country in recent days, including two at a Walmart near Chicago.

Their ranks will surely grow. Grocery stores, prodded by the state, have started enacting strict measures to keep employees and customers safe — limiting the number of people in stores, providing face masks to employees, installing plexiglass shields at cash registers — but many workers were exposed early on. Two other employees at the Salem Market Basket where Williams worked have also tested positive.

David Williams held his wedding photograph Friday.
David Williams held his wedding photograph Friday.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

David knew from the moment he first rode his bicycle past her near that Salem train station and then circled back around to get another look, that “I wasn’t letting this one go.”

She was one of those people who was always happy, he said, delighted even. She was undocumented when they met, he said, but got her legal residency after they were married, and later became a citizen.

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David and Vitalina wanted children, but it wasn’t meant to be. And that was OK. Vitalina was devoutly Catholic and felt it was part of God’s plan.

They liked to cook together, and sometimes took lawn chairs to Salem Willows Park in the evenings to attend concerts.

“They were quite obviously very in love,” said David’s sister, Helen Freeman, of Peabody.

Visually, they were a striking couple, she said. Vitalina had lustrous black hair and brown skin and was quite petite — “Her license says 4-foot-11, and I think that’s a stretch,” David said — while David is 6-foot-2 with pale skin and much less hair.

They didn’t have a lot of savings, but they had the house, with added income from the apartment on the first floor. “Like my parents said, this house is our retirement,” David said.

David and Vitalina Williams
David and Vitalina WilliamsDavid Williams

Jonathan Lederman first met Vitalina when she was doing housework for his parents in Marblehead years ago. But she wasn’t just their housekeeper. His mother attended her wedding; David and Vitalina sat shiva when his parents died.

Lederman would run into her occasionally at Walmart. “She’d have this enormous smile and say, ‘What do you need to find? I’d be glad to help you,’ “ he said. “She was just unbelievably generous. And my sense was that she was generous with everyone she came in contact with.”

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At Market Basket, she was one of the first ones to report to work, waiting in the dark parking lot to be let in by managers who came in at 6 a.m. Despite her petite stature, said former store manager David Webber, Vitalina had “the personality of a 7-foot person: very strong and very outgoing and didn’t shy away from anything.”

She never called in sick and was always in a good mood, said Kellie Garon, who was her direct supervisor for four years. “Six-thirty in the morning, not a lot of people want to be there,” Garon said. “She was just there smiling away.”

Vitalina’s family in Guatemala, who live in the town of Tecpán, is in shock over her death, said her brother Romeo Jiatz, 47, who was recently elected to the city council. Without Vitalina to translate, they communicated with her husband over e-mail, relying on Google Translate to relay information, sometimes spottily, about her rapidly deteriorating condition.

Growing up, their father was in and out of the picture and their mother worked all the time, so Vitalina was often in charge of Jiatz, like a second mother, he said, his voice breaking as he began to sob. She helped hold the family together, even from afar, sending money and care packages and getting the siblings together when she came to visit. When her mother was dying a few years ago, she took out a $10,000 cash advance on her credit card to help pay her hospital bills.

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“She was always the one providing for us,“ Jiatz said, in Spanish. “Vitalina always kept an eye on me, even until now.”

The last time Jiatz saw his older sister was in January, when she came to attend his swearing-in ceremony, bringing a new computer for her godson’s family with her.

In Guatemala, Jiatz said, women are seen as having a much lower status than men. But Vitalina didn’t let that get in her way, he said. “She became like an icon among us,” he said. “What she wanted was to do better than here, get better economic opportunities. She saw the US as a country of many, many opportunities for all kinds of people.”

The last time Jiatz spoke to his sister, a few days before she got sick, he warned her to be careful. There haven’t been any COVID-19 cases in Tecpán, but there are a few in a neighboring town, he said, so Tecpán has closed all its entrances. Now, no one is coming in, he said.

"I used to tell her, ‘Vitalina why are you always working?’ “ Jiatz said. “And she would say to me, ‘Listen Romeo, after what we lived in our childhood, after all that poverty we experienced, after struggling to find a good job, I feel like here I have an amazing opportunity to work and I’m not going to waste that chance.’ ”

Vitalina Williams was with her husband David at their goddaughter's confirmation in Guatemala.
Vitalina Williams was with her husband David at their goddaughter's confirmation in Guatemala. David Williams

As the pandemic took hold in Massachusetts, Freeman worried about her brother and sister-in-law, knowing they were putting themselves in harm’s way every day. Vitalina had always been healthy, but Freeman worried about David, who has a heart condition.

“It’s a terrible feeling when you’re in such a financial bind that you must go to work” despite the risks, she said.

Lederman, whose parents once employed Vitalina as a housekeeper, has been struck by the inequalities the pandemic is throwing into sharp relief. Most higher-income earners can work from home, safe from the virus’s reach. Service workers like Vitalina, however, are either being laid off or forced to do their jobs in dangerous circumstances that they never signed up for. “This has had a very asymmetric impact on people,” he said.

David, for his part, doesn’t blame the companies, or the situation he and his wife were in. It’s just the way life goes, he said.

“Crap happens and crap rolls downhill,“ he said. “So if you’re on the bottom of the hill like most of us are, you’re going to be wearing a crap vest every once in a while. You just trudge through it.”

Once the crisis has passed, David plans to take Vitalina’s ashes home to her family. Guatemalans typically bury their loved one’s physical remains, Vitalina’s brother said, and visit their gravesites on special occasions.

“It’s this thing with the earth, the ground,” he said. “It’s like going back to your origins.”

Globe correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed to this report.


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.