Wilmer Valderrama's Sad Encounter With Grocery Store Worker Inspired His Activism: 'We Are So Much Better Than That'

"A simple, 'Hello, how are you today,' to a stranger, to your neighbor, to the person who delivered your food, can go a long way," says Valderrama

Wilmer Valderrama
Photo: Rich Fury/Getty Images

Wilmer Valderrama, 40, is an actor and activist who has been using his platforms to draw attention to those working in low-wage, high-risk jobs during a pandemic with his 6 Feet Apart Instagram Live series. He talks to PEOPLE about how an encounter with a grocery store employee caused him to think about how he can use his voice to support others.

My fiancée [Amanda Pacheco] and I have been self-isolating at home in a compound surrounded by property I’ve bought over the years so my family can live close to each other – my mother, father, sisters and my nephew. We’re very fortunate to have one another in this moment. There are so many people out in the world who are in this moment also feeling like, “Man, I can’t even hug my mother,” I can’t even be close to my sister.

I think that if we tap into our human instinct, we’ll find ways to connect that are just as impactful and as necessary as we would have had before. I think this is an interesting time to reflect on your other ways of being a human.

Six weeks ago, when we were told there may be some lockdowns and people were rushing the grocery stories, I walked into one and I noticed that there was a very different energy. The workforce and the individuals that were working, they seemed a little tired. They weren’t as bright as they normally are. I asked one of the girls who works there how she was doing and she said, “Hanging in there.” I said, “No, tell me how you are. Not a lot of people are asking you how you are today.”

She was like, “Well, Wilmer. Thank you for asking. I know people show very different faces around here … People are really mean. People are being really mean to us and I don’t understand why. We’re just doing what we have to do and what we can do in the moment.” She said she has had people come in and ask for certain products and when they express that those products are not available, they just make these faces and make these undertone comments and they’re just very dismissive of them and they just storm off.

It really disappointed me. I thought to myself, “We are so much f—ing better than that.” I can’t even fathom a human being taking it out on this group of individuals who are spending 10 to 12 hours a day in a grocery store, exposing themselves to hundreds and hundreds of people, exchanging money and credit cards, restocking things, disinfecting the store and moving nonstop only for people to treat them this way. To me, I couldn’t hold it to myself. I had to share it.

That’s why I decided to start my 6 Feet Apart Instagram Live series. I’m creating an ecosystem to expose a lot of our followers and hopefully a lot of the media to conversations that are not being had on primetime or on the big stage. I’m going to have live conversations with people and make it available on social media.

I’m looking for people who will not just be relatable, but will give us the most insight.. I’m going to start with the farm workers. Then I’m going to move on to the truck drivers, who have to transport our goods. Then, I’m going to go into the grocery stores again and speak with the grocers. Then, I’m going to move from there to the people buying and delivering our food. Then I’m going to move up to other first responders. From there, I’m going to with the security guard who is making sure that people wait in line six feet apart. Then I’m going to speak with law enforcement, nurses and doctors, and then patients who have been tested and those who have been tested positive.

I just felt like this is the best use of my time and my platform. It’s not about me. It’s about everyone else. That’s what I wanted to do.

In the beginning, I was so confused about what my role was in all this. It was driving me crazy because as an activist, to be told to be home and not show up for anyone, was really frustrating. I felt guilty. But this is how I show up for people: to amplify voices and bring conversations to the forefront, to bring different perspectives. To me, the most critical part is to allow us to find an alternative of how to handle frustration, how to handle self-panic, how to handle our instincts.

I’m hoping that this wakes up our human side and allows us to have more empathy. I’m hoping it reminds us that we’re better than our initial instinct. I’m hoping that for those individuals that can relate to the hostility, either on the receiving end or on the causing end, that they can reflect and look at themselves. I’m hoping this will help us lead with kindness. Let’s not ruin each other’s days because of self-frustrations.

A simple, “Hello, how are you today,” to a stranger, to your neighbor, to the person who delivered your food, can go a long way. if you can spare it, cash in your deliveries – over-tip the people that are out there doing these the deliveries; acknowledge “I know you are putting your life on the line. I know that you’re putting your family at risk, but you’re still answering the call of duty.”

No matter whether someone’s picking strawberries or driving a truck, now’s the time to show: We appreciate you. There’s a level of emotional support that we can provide to a lot of these silent heroes of ours in this moment. That is fuel and that is fire for the soul. I think that’s number one. Number two, this is a moment where you share resources, donate to organizations. Even giving away an extra pair of gloves you have, that could save a life. Reach out to the very same world with heart, understanding and appreciation. There are many ways that you can get involved at this moment.

This has really forced me to stop and listen a little more. This time I’m able to share with my family has been a really therapeutic experience. When we go back to “normality,” what are we going to be to one another, and how much of this can we carry on after this? I say, let’s be kind to one another.

  • As told to Christina Dugan


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