By Jozie Donaghey
It’s hard for Maria de Jesus Avila to believe that back in February, her in-home business D’Marias Hair Salon was full of clients. Now it sits empty in the back portion of her house in Springfield, Oregon. de Jesus Avila and her husband, Carlos Francisco Perez, are both facing unemployment in the heat of the pandemic.
“There’s more stress because we don’t know when we can go back to work,” Maria de Jesus Avila says. “We’re prepared to stay home a little, but not long.”
Both de Jesus Avila and her husband are self-employed. But like many service industry workers, when the pandemic came to Oregon, they both became unemployed indefinitely. For De Jesus Avila, applying for unemployment is challenging, she says, because her internet access isn’t reliable and the Spanish translations of online forms are hard to understand.
“I tried a few times to do them online, but you know, I don’t have good internet and so I wasn’t able to finish them,” she says. “The forms are hard to understand even in Spanish, so I filled them out the best I could, and we’ll have to see.”
de Jesus Avila moved from Jalisco, Mexico, to California in 1983 before moving to Springfield in 2002. She is one of many immigrants living in Lane County that comprise Oregon’s Latinx population, which is 13.3% statewide. In Springfield, that number is 12%.
Yet statistics from Oregon’s COVID-19 weekly report show the Hispanic community accounts for over 29% of all confirmed coronavirus cases statewide.
Oregon’s Latinx community has disproportionately been affected by the coronavirus because of systemic and institutionalized oppression, several experts say. The location of their communities, immigration and citizenship issues and a lack of bilingual information have all made the pandemic particularly difficult for Latinx people.
John Arroyo, an assistant professor in engaging diverse communities at the University of Oregon, says rural Latinx populations are vulnerable to the coronavirus because they often live far from resources and close to toxins that cause preexisting conditions.
“Physical illnesses like asthma are common among dense Latinx populations due to the history of where Latinx have grown up in America,” Arroyo says. “The prevalence of illnesses like diabetes and high cholesterol is also due to environmental injustice.”
Beyond Toxics, an environmental justice non-profit based in Oregon, and Centro Latino Americano, an organization in Eugene that provides resources for the Latinx community, partnered in 2012 to conduct a report on toxic emissions. They studied the correlation between Latinx communities that live in West Eugene’s industrial corridor, asthmatic children in nearby school districts and socioeconomic status.
The report shows that 99% of all of Eugene’s air toxins are emitted in West Eugene where nearly half of the Latinx community resides. These pollutants cause preexisting conditions such as asthma and lung disease that make people more vulnerable to COVID-19.
In the Bethel School District, Fairfield Elementary had the highest enrollment of Latinx students (35%), as well as the highest number of students on free/reduced lunch and students with self-reported asthma.
Fairfield students were 107% more likely to have asthma than students at Irving Elementary, the school with the lowest number of students on free/reduced lunch. Beyond Toxics suspects this is because Fairfield is within 2 miles of 14 industrial air polluters, such as sawmills and wood treatment plants.
But because housing prices in this area are lower than in others, many Latinx families don’t have much of a choice, Arroyo says, especially if they’ve just immigrated to the area and don’t have legal documentation.
La inmigración y la ciudadanía
Aside from these issues stemming from housing inequalities, Oregon’s Latinx community is also more vulnerable to COVID-19 because of the challenges they face in receiving government aid.
The Public Charge rule plays a huge role in whether immigrants seek government aid, according to Arroyo. Public Charge states that the government can deny access to citizenship, a Green Card or visa to immigrants if they believe the person will be primarily dependent on government support.
“Public Charge makes it hard for any immigrant to become a citizen if they’re on government aid,” Arroyo says. “If they use services now, they may not be able to become citizens in the future.”
Along with fear of Public Charge, many patients are avoiding health care facilities for fear that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers will be there waiting for them. A 2019 survey conducted by The Children’s Partnership in California found that over 40% of immigrant patients were skipping appointments and consultations to avoid ICE confrontation.
ICE has continued detaining immigrants despite there being 90 confirmed cases among detainees and 20 among employees in several facilities, according to ICE. Detainees at greater risk of contracting the virus are slowly being released with ankle monitors, but there are still over 32,000 immigrants that remain in detainment centers.
The agency has made public statements that immigrants should continue to seek care for the virus without fear or hesitation. But Acting Deputy Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security Ken Cuccinelli also said in a Twitter post that ICE would continue operations as it always has, adding to public confusion as to whether hospitals are a safe zone for immigrants.
Besides the fear of being detained by ICE, immigrants who don’t have citizenship or official wage and tax statements can’t apply for unemployment benefits, food stamps or stimulus checks.
This is an issue that Lorna Flormoe, a manager for the City of Eugene Office of Human Rights and Neighborhood Involvement, says she’s trying to address in the city's recovery plan.
“A lot of services open to most community members aren’t available to Latinos due to their immigration status,” Flormoe says. “We’re asking ourselves, ‘How can we get assistance to families who can’t get regular assistance?’”
El frente de la batalla
With government aid off the table for many Latinx families, taking time off work to socially distance isn’t a viable option. The Oregon Commission on Hispanic Affairs Chair Linda Irma Castillo says this is especially true for many Latinx employees who have to support large, multigenerational households.
“They often can’t afford to not work, and the jobs they do are in the service industry, like sanitation, so they’re already exposed,” Castillo says.
According to Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, an advocacy organization for Hispanic immigrants and farm workers, there are 74,000 undocumented agricultural, child care, food service, cleaning, maintenance and retail workers in the state of Oregon, which is about 13% of Oregon’s Latinx population.
“The vast majority of these workers are deemed essential, yet are not entitled to unemployment insurance or emergency aid,” Reyna Lopez, the organization’s executive director, said in a public statement on April 24.
Having to support multiple family members highlights how social distancing is another form of privilege minorities don’t have, Arroyo says. Especially without any government assistance.
“The Latinx populations are living paycheck to paycheck, supporting large families with a few wage earners,” he says. “If you have to be on hold from work, you have to be able to afford it.”
According to Castillo, this brings back the same question to Latinx households: How do you feed your family and protect yourself during a pandemic when you can’t afford not to work?
And for families whose first language isn’t English, there is another barrier: access to information.
La falta de información en español
Most information on the pandemic from the news, healthcare facilities and the government hasn’t been made available in Spanish, with few resources for non-English speaking community members, Castillo says.
“A lot of COVID material early on wasn't translated or dispersed far and wide across the state,” Castillo says. “There needs to be reliable intercultural and interlanguage information out in the community.”
The majority of information on COVID-19, quarantine and social distancing restrictions have been dispersed solely online. This form of information is often harder to understand for people whose first language isn’t English, and the Spanish translations aren’t always accurate, according to Maria. With the IRS and unemployment offices no longer open to the public, receiving bilingual assistance requires a phone call that could take hours.
According to a Centro Latino Americano survey about the effects of COVID-19 in Lane County’s Latinx community, 44% of Latinx clients are concerned about getting COVID-19 information. Twenty-nine percent are worried about language barriers preventing them from getting information from schools, the news and healthcare services.
Flormoe says the city is prioritizing these concerns in its pandemic response and recovery plan. She also says the City of Eugene website has an “Español” button at the top of every page that translates information, lists various services and has updated and accurate COVID-19 information for anyone in the community. Castillo says the website for Eugene’s Commision on Hispanic Affairs has this information as well.
With Lane County now moving into Phase 1 of re-opening after Gov. Kate Brown’s Stay Home, Save Lives executive order in March, businesses like restaurants, fitness centers and personal care services are starting to re-open — including de Jesus Avila’s hair salon.
“I’m excited because we open tomorrow,” she says. “I’ve been calling my clients to see if they need appointments.”
But lifting quarantine restrictions for Oregon businesses comes with a long list of preventive measures based on the Oregon Health Authority’s Reopening Guidance, which incurs extra costs. Pre-health screenings of clients, extensive cleaning between appointments and purchasing masks, gloves and capes are just some of the requirements de Jesus Avila must comply with to re-open.
“I’ve been looking for cleaning supplies, and I’ve ordered some ponchos, but they’re hard to find,” she says. “For now, I’m going to use black trash bags until my ponchos get here, and am asking clients to wear masks.”
de Jesus Avila says she plans on disinfecting her entire shop between clients, limiting the amount of appointments she can have per day and taking a shower before re-entering her home. Keeping her family safe from exposure is still her first priority.
“I know it’s going to be different when we go back to work,” she says. “I want to be prepared when we go back, but it’s going to change a lot.”
If you or someone you know needs resources/information about deportation rights, food security, COVID-19 information or environmental justice complaints, please contact these resources: Centro Latino Americano, Commission on Hispanic Affairs, PCUN, CAUSA, Eugene Gleaners, Huerto de la Familia, Beyond Toxics, Occupy Medical and Oregon Latino Health Coalition