Ramiro Brambila picked an interesting time to try to start a food truck business.
Taqueria la Herradura, a white bus currently serving up Mexican cuisine in the Jerrick’s Fine Jewelry parking lot, doesn’t have a dining room for coronavirus health orders to close, but fewer people working probably means fewer people driving around town with money to dine out on.
As Utah rolls out a task force to address the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on minorities, leaders in Cache Valley are hoping local factors help mitigate the outsized impact the virus has had on Latino communities nationally. They worry, however, that the crisis will worsen existing disparities in education, health and even safety — especially if more isn’t done to get official information out in Spanish.
Lizette Villegas, community outreach coordinator with The Family Place, said with COVID-19’s disruptions to the economy, health care, social services and more, families’ needs, especially among Latinos, “have gone up extremely.”
“I think one day … it was like till 4 in the morning that I was getting messages,” Villegas said. “And then I went to sleep at 4 and woke up at 6 in the morning again with messages. That was the first week that all of this was going on. So it was intense, just all the needs and questions.”
Statistics on the national and state levels show the coronavirus hitting Latinos especially hard. One third of Utah’s confirmed COVID-19 cases are Latino residents, even though they make up 14 percent of the state’s population, according to Utah Dept. of Health numbers as of April 24.
Locally, Josh Greer, a spokesman for the Bear River Health Department, said no data is readily available on how the virus is impacting Latinos locally, though this is something health officials may examine down the road.
Utah State University Extension professor Celina Wille, who works with the Latino community, said several factors may be driving the disparity. Many Latino residents work in manufacturing or in the service industry, putting them at greater risk of exposure. As essential workers and working-class families, many don’t have the option of working from home. Complicating the Latino community’s greater risk of exposure are existing health disparities, including limited access to care and the underlying health conditions that can come with that.
“Other factors that come in to play are the lack of trust Latinos generally have on the health care system and language and cultural barriers that keep them from connecting with health care providers,” Wille wrote in an email to The Herald Journal. “I know the Utah Department of Health is making concerted efforts to bridge these barriers and are monitoring health disparities among Latinos and other racial and ethnic minorities.”
In a milestone for those efforts, Gov. Gary Herbert announced Thursday that a subcommittee of the Utah COVID-19 Community Task Force is being formed to carry out a comprehensive plan to address coronavirus disparities.
“These are uncertain and trying times for everybody, and all Utahns are feeling the pinch; but we have found with data that we have some more significant challenges with our minority groups,” Herbert said in the announcement. “For some, it is language barriers, or it may be cultural barriers. We want to make sure they get the information they need to survive.”
The subcommittee will base its work on the findings of a survey conducted recently by the Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs, or MCA, asking professionals and community organizations who serve marginalized groups where they saw the greatest coronavirus needs and what keeps people from meeting them.
The MCA survey’s respondents listed limited access to digital technology, food and housing insecurity, barriers to health care, and misinformation and language barriers among the top concerns unique to their clients.
Anecdotally, the pandemic seems to have had a mixed impact on Latino communities in Cache Valley. The service industry has been hit hard, and Latinos who work cleaning homes and hotels may be seeing less work. Restaurants have seen a slowdown, and many local owners are struggling to help out their workers. Down the road, farms may have less work available if they can’t adapt to a decrease in demand from restaurants and schools.
On the other hand, many Latinos in Cache Valley work in essential manufacturing, which may offer more job security. Despite increased cleaning regimens, temperature checks and other precautions in plants where social distancing isn’t always possible, many in the community worry that workers are at increased risk of exposure to coronavirus.
As people everywhere try to keep up with the latest trustworthy information about the pandemic, language barriers can exacerbate that struggle.
Crescencio López-González, a Cache Valley Latino advocate and assistant professor at Utah State University, said people who aren’t bilingual are likely to get their information from national media, where the areas most in crisis get the most attention. Knowing what’s going on more in New York City, where Latinos are among those hit hardest by the virus, than the situation locally can spread undue fear or confusion about the restrictions here among local Latinos, López-González said.
“If I were to put information (out to local Latinos) that it’s OK for them to go out for a walk with a family member who lives in the same house, a lot of them would probably say no because of the fear,” López-González said.
To combat this, López-González said he’d like to see more official Spanish-language information coming from city governments — Logan especially — Bear River Health Department and the local school districts.
“That narrative of fear can be eased by the Bear River Health Department,” López-González said. “Because they’re the ones. They (local Latinos) would listen to me, but they would definitely listen to Bear River Health Department. … I don’t see as much information coming from them in Spanish, and that’s what I’m trying to say.”
While some announcements and information is available in Spanish, local health orders are not.
Greer said he has not heard any complaints about a lack of information published in Spanish, but he thinks it sounds like a good idea.
“We have not heard any comments about that,” Greer said, “but that is a good comment to make and we could certainly look into how we can address that.”
To BRHD’s credit, López-González said, after he called to share his concerns, he thinks the health department did a great job reaching out to help Latino business owners understand and follow health orders.
Danny Beus said in his various capacities as a local Latino activist, Cache County Democratic Party chairman and member of a Latter-day Saint bishopric, he’s seen people unite to help one another and adhere to guidelines. From his personal standpoint, however, those efforts are hampered when official information isn’t reaching as deeply into communities with Spanish speakers.
“I do think that things aren’t getting to our Spanish-speakers fast enough,” Beus said. “I think there is a little delay there, and maybe a little misunderstanding on certain things, because all info should be out in English and Spanish.”
Beus and López-González both said they worry that since Utah schools were dismissed, there’s been a shortage of child care, especially in homes where parents are essential workers. And now that caregivers are also homeschool teachers, child care shortages may worsen disparities in education.
“I wonder how they’re doing with their homework, and maybe some of them don’t even have internet,” López-González said. “But if you don’t have an adult in the house who can be telling them what to do, it’s more difficult. I mean I am an adult, and I know I have three girls who go to school … you have to be there to tell your kids what to do, or else they just spend all their time watching TV or watching Netflix or watching something else.”
Another concern for some local Latinos is immigration status. Villegas’s work with The Family Place is funded in part by an Unaccompanied Alien Children grant, which has helped her build trust among undocumented residents. Some, lacking official information on local health orders and programs, have been afraid to seek emergency help or even go outside.
“The benefit that The Family Place has is that we have their trust so they’re able to call me and say, ‘Liz, I’m so scared to go take a test, because what about if they call Immigration on me?’” Villegas said. Or “’Liz, I’m so scared to call the police because of a domestic violence dispute because then I’m going to get deported. What are my kids going to do?’”
As part of the Family Place’s efforts to communicate with and build trust among local Latino communities, Villegas runs a Facebook group named La Pulguita de Logan. Like the hundreds of other mutual aid organizations locally and nationwide that have further blossomed during the pandemic, it’s a place where people can help each other and share reliable information.
“So I’m able to comfort them, to lead them to the correct resource and give them that reassurance that everything that I, myself, with the Family Place, do is for their benefit,” Villegas said.
Whether the state’s new plans effectively help spread coronavirus information into Cache Valley Latino communities, Villegas encourages everyone to reach across cultural barriers to help each other now.
“If it’s in your heart to do it, just do it,” Villegas said to anyone who’d like to help but may be intimidated by intercultural communication. “It’s as easy as being kind. As easy as going into one of the Mexican markets and buying apples like you would at Walmart.”