By the time Sonia Avila asked her husband to call the doctor, she’d already looked death in the eyes.
What had started on a Sunday with pain in her feet had quickly spread throughout her body, leaving the 61-year-old feeling cold all day. When she wasn’t better by Tuesday, her daughter took her for a COVID test, but when the test came back positive, it was her husband Carlos she worried for most. He was the one with diabetes and a history of heart attacks that could spell complications.
While Carlos never developed more than a cough, Sonia’s temperature soared. And then, from her bed in her trailer home, wracked with fever, she saw an ominous figure coming down the hallway, as her mother and mother-in-law, both deceased, closed the door to keep it out.
“I saw the face of Death, how she wanted to come in, and they didn’t let her in,” Sonia said. “That’s what I lived and that’s what I saw.” Again and again, she prayed to the Virgin of Guadalupe to give her relief. A few days later, she cried as she told Carlos that she couldn’t breathe.
The next morning, at her doctor’s recommendation, Carlos drove her to the emergency room. When staff told him he’d need to leave her there and call for updates, he had no idea how long it might be until he saw his wife of 43 years again. But six hours later, she was headed home with medication for a lung infection, and she quickly improved.
But nearly two weeks later, talking too long still wears her out, and the miles-long walks she and Carlos used to take are out of the question. She’s not sure how long it might take to fully recover; in some patients, symptoms last for months.
“This thing can beat a person very easily,” she said. “It leaves you really hurt.”
In the eight months since the pandemic first gripped Wisconsin, it’s taken a disproportionate toll on Latinos. Though Latinos make up just 6% of Dane County’s population, they are 15% of the 27,375 cases confirmed in Dane County as of Nov. 30, and 14% of total hospitalizations.
The same trends have played out at the state and national levels. Latinos make up about 7% of Wisconsin’s population, but 12% of the state’s confirmed COVID cases and 11% of hospitalizations. As of Nov. 29, there were 10,417 confirmed infections per 100,000 Hispanic or Latino Wisconsinites. That’s 24% higher than the rate for American Indian residents, 52% higher than the rate for Black residents, and 85% higher than the rate for non-Hispanic white residents.
Cap Times reporter Natalie Yahr explains the factors that put Madison's Latinos at heightened risk for COVID, and the ways they're fighting back.
Nationally, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that Latinos are 2.8 times more likely to be infected and 4.6 times more likely to be hospitalized, when compared to white non-Hispanic Americans.
The only bright spot: While Latinos are at heightened risk of contracting the virus and requiring hospitalization, they don’t appear to be at heightened risk of death. According to public health data, Latinos made up just three of the 79 deaths in Dane County and just 7% of deaths statewide.
With all the coronavirus metrics moving in the wrong direction — and Wisconsin at the center — Latinos find themselves at increasing risk. But for every way that this virus and its fallout have unevenly hit Madison’s Latino community, the community has punched back. From sharing their Spanish skills at COVID testing sites to checking up on isolated elders, from attending virtual courses in record numbers to working longer days to keep their restaurants afloat, local Latinos are proving they will fight to survive this life-threatening, life-altering era.
Ready the defenses
Dr. Patricia Tellez-Giron could have told you that the pandemic would hit Latinos hard. Known to many as simply “La Doctora,” Tellez-Giron has championed the public health needs of Madison’s Latino community for more than two decades. She sees patients at UW Health’s Wingra Clinic, leads the nonprofit Latino Health Council and answers listener questions each month on Spanish-language radio station La Movida (WLMV-AM).
“We are talking about health disparities that have been around for so many years,” she said, citing higher rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity — all factors that raise the chances of coronavirus complications. “When you start with a population that already started at a disadvantage and put them in the middle of a crisis, of course we’re not gonna do well.”
Such pre-existing health conditions are just one of the many factors behind Latinos’ disproportionate infection and hospitalization rates. Like Black Americans, Latinos are less likely to have jobs that can be done remotely and more likely to work in the industries dubbed “essential” during the pandemic. Some work in industries like meatpacking, which President Donald Trump ordered to continue operating even as they became COVID hotspots, claiming these food supply chains were crucial to national defense.
Latinos are also more likely to live in multigenerational or crowded homes, increasing potential exposure and making it hard for those who get sick to isolate. And with Latino households earning 46% less than non-Hispanic white households — according to a 2016 Latino Consortium for Action report — in a county where a minimum wage worker would need three full-time jobs to pay for the average two-bedroom apartment, cash-strapped families may find themselves unable to bear the cost of staying home for two weeks if they’re sick or exposed.
Those who are undocumented face additional challenges. They’re less likely to have health insurance, and those working under the table may not receive the same workplace protections. Undocumented individuals don’t qualify for unemployment compensation or federal stimulus funds, lifelines that have allowed some Americans to stay home.
Getting picked up by ICE has always been traumatic. But now, immigration detention comes with the twin dangers of deportation and a potentially deadly virus.
Meanwhile, even those who are in the country legally on visas may fear immigration consequences for seeking COVID testing or treatment, thanks to a new “public charge” rule issued by the Trump administration in 2019, which said that immigrants’ use of certain government services could make them ineligible for green cards. In August, a federal court ruled that the rule couldn’t go into effect during the pandemic, but immigrant advocates worry the damage has already been done.
But while Latinos were at heightened risk, Tellez-Giron said plans for prevention and testing weren’t being made with Latinos in mind. “We knew that the system was not looking at us, per se,” she said, though she acknowledges that it was an overwhelming crisis and there were so many populations who would be affected differently. “We never got approached by anybody directly from the system saying, ‘Oh, Latinx, what do you need? How can we help you?’”
As the head of the Latino Health Council, she’s used to pushing systems to take Latinos into account. The Council looked for opportunities to collaborate with Public Health Madison & Dane County to make everything from health messages to testing processes better fit the county’s Latino residents.
When it came to COVID announcements, for example, that meant doing more than just translating the message into Spanish, said Shiva Bidar, co-chair of the Latino Health Council and a city alder. It also meant thinking about what message will resonate and who the audience trusts.
“Having Dr. Tellez-Giron being the one that is actually on the video giving the message is very different than having somebody who's not a Latina, with subtitles,” Bidar said. She can tell it’s working when she sees others sharing their messages and asking others to follow the same advice.
The Council convinced public health officials to open a COVID testing site at Villager Mall on South Park Street. They hired 18 Spanish speakers, many of them recent college graduates, as bilingual COVID specialists.
Among the recruits was Gilberto Osuna-Leon, a recent University of Wisconsin-Madison grad who plans to start medical school in 2021. He’d worked with Tellez-Giron on public health initiatives for years, and she was the one who persuaded him to go into medicine.
Now he works eight-hour shifts at whatever testing site most needs his help. The bilingual staff are trained for all areas of the job, he said, since their language skills are in high demand, so on any given day, he might register patients, give results or swab noses.
“It's been great so far,” he said, and, in the same breath: “I get exposed daily to COVID. Thankfully, I haven't developed any symptoms or gotten COVID myself, but it definitely is a risk being there.”
But he also knows Latino residents depend on him, and he knows the unique fears that may plague any undocumented patients. He’s currently authorized to work and protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Alondra Quechol, a DACA recipient and recent graduate of UW-Milwaukee, applied too. She said she’s never been much of a science person, but her knack for translation and her people skills made her just right for the job. Plus, she said, as an accident-prone kid, she spent a lot of time in hospitals, and she knows how it felt when there was no one but her there to interpret for her parents.
“My parents are in the back of my head and in my heart every time I go there,”Quechol said. “Some parents come to me like, ‘I feel so thankful that you're here and you understand.’ There's no other better feeling than to know that you're valued that way.”
Bidar said these young people exemplify the power of the local Latino population. “They have stepped up in such an incredible way to help their own community.”
Other Latino Health Council pandemic responses have included making videos to encourage mask-wearing and coordinating qualified volunteers to provide virtual counseling or emotional support. Worried that younger Latinos might not be taking the virus seriously, the Council worked with hip-hop artists to produce a rap video about COVID safety and recruited college students to promote pandemic safety on social media. And, aware that seniors might feel especially isolated or depressed, Tellez-Giron’s 75-year-old mother Yolanda Salazar and a handful of other elders have been making weekly phone calls to check on around 70 of their peers.
Meanwhile, a variety of other organizations rallied to provide non-medical safety nets, from food boxes to financial relief.
Without these efforts, Tellez-Giron thinks the pandemic would have hit the county’s Latino population even more disproportionately. She’s grateful for the work of the local public health department, but it’s the grassroots organizations, which came together to fill gaps in the government response, that she calls a “big success story.”
“What they have been able to do without really a lot of outside support has been amazing.”
Karen Menendez Coller, executive director of Centro Hispano, thinks local government did the best it could given the circumstances. The problem, she said, is that the Latino community was already struggling to meet its basic needs before the pandemic.
“We’ve been kind of flying under the radar but yet we’re this ginormous community that’s growing in the city, the county and the entire state … but the systems on the ground have never been in place to address the needs,” she said. “How do we advocate to make sure that the systems are able to rise to the challenge?”
Compounding that resource shortage, Menendez Coller said, is a federal government hostile to immigrants, and a state still wrapping its mind around its growing Latino population. In Wisconsin, she said, “everybody’s still trying to understand us — basic things like where we come from and how long we’ve been here. So to jump into action? It’s a tall task.”
Asked what more the government could do now to help Latinos through the pandemic, Tellez-Giron laughs. “Let me see. Where do I start?” she asks.
One key, she said, is providing economic safety nets and working conditions that enable people to stay home when they’re sick or contagious, including for undocumented workers.
Ramon Ortiz, vice chair of the Wisconsin Latino Chamber of Commerce, argues that the pandemic has only made clearer that the undocumented are “third-class citizens” treated as if they were “dispensable.”
Each fall, Susana Valtierra's front yard becomes an altar to the dead. This year, with COVID's ever-rising death toll, the celebration resonates in new ways.
When the Wisconsin Supreme Court heard arguments before overturning Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide stay-at-home order, Chief Justice Patience Roggensack dismissed a spike in COVID cases tied to meatpacking plants, saying “it wasn’t just the regular folks in Brown County.”
And in a secret recording of a May meeting with Evers, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos attributed a COVID outbreak in Racine to “a large immigrant population” and “a difference in culture where people are living much closer and working much closer.”
The comments, Ortiz said, reveal a lack of understanding. “What immigrant culture is he talking about?” Ortiz said. “The fact that they have to go to work? The fact that they have to work in a closed setting? The fact that they can't stay at home? The fact that poverty forces them to live in multigenerational households?
“That has nothing to do with the immigrant culture,” he said. “That has to do with poverty and disparity and people having to work to survive.”
But Ortiz sees a “poetic justice” in the pandemic. “If the federal government did not recognize the humanity of the undocumented … COVID did,” Ortiz said. “It had no problem seeing them as a host for the virus … It made no distinction between your citizenship status, your race, your class or your ethnicity.”
That, Tellez-Giron believes, is a key message for anyone concerned about the virus. “The community at large has to hear that whatever happens to us is gonna trickle down to the other communities,” Tellez-Giron said. “You care because if I get infected, and I go out, I'm going to infect you.”
Masked up and open for business
Another measure of the pandemic’s toll on the Latino community: the number of calls pouring into the Wisconsin Latino Chamber of Commerce, which helps Latino-owned businesses across the state with everything from registering a businesses to closing down correctly. Before March, the Fitchburg-based Chamber received an average of 50 calls a month, said CEO Jessica Cavazos. But since the pandemic took hold in Wisconsin, that number is running around 300.
In an October survey of COVID’s effect on the state’s businesses, conducted by the UW-Oshkosh, responding businesses reported $1 million in income losses, $218,000 in inventory losses, $839,000 in lost wages and productivity and $3 million in other economic losses.
Early in the pandemic, the Latino Chamber helped businesses advertise online or switch to curbside service. But eight months into the pandemic, Cavazos said the work is more about planning for the long haul. A June report from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation estimated that it would be more than two years before Wisconsin returns to pre-pandemic employment levels.
“We now have to readjust our sails and help people navigate the next three to four years of recovery,” she said.”
Anahi Rojas Muñoz and her husband Jose Antonio Vazquez own El Panzon, a Mexican restaurant on South Midvale Blvd. whose specialty is the cemita, a plate-sized sandwich overflowing with meat, shredded cheese and avocado. Their food is takeout-friendly, but demand just isn’t what it used to be. To get by, they started closing an hour earlier, and they’ve reduced hours for their two paid employees, opting to work longer shifts themselves.
But the couple worries for their employees. “It’s difficult for them too, because they have their families. And we want to be able to count on them when all this is over,” Rojas said. “We can’t just look out for ourselves.”
They could have applied to the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which offered funds for businesses that would keep their employees on the payroll, but businesses that ultimately cut staff were required to pay the money back.
“Apart from the pandemic, to have a loan in addition, it doesn’t seem like a good idea to us. It would be a lot of stress,” Vazquez said. “If we have to close, we’ll close and we’ll leave. But the other way, we have to close and we still have to pay.”
Before the pandemic, their teenage children would help out in the restaurant, but Rojas said they’ve kept the kids home since March. In the time since, the pandemic briefly abated and then dramatically accelerated. When a statewide stay-at-home order was struck down in state court, local public health officials issued restrictions of their own.
While some businesses have pushed back on such restrictions, the couple said they would like to see more dramatic steps to stem the virus, like a month-long shutdown closing all businesses except maybe pharmacies.
“We would close, but they’d have to close everything. A full shutdown,” Vazquez said. “No one should go out.”
“It’s very important,” Rojas agreed. “If we don’t close things down like Jose said, this will continue,” she said, with low sales, little work and people scared to leave home.
“It’s like pain,” Vazquez said — best to get it over with. “It’s better to close for a month and it goes away, than to have the pain all the time, all the time, all the time.”
The pandemic has yielded a lot of bad numbers. There’s the skyrocketing case count, an ever-growing death toll, a crush of unemployment applicants and a spike in demand at food banks.
But at the Latino Academy for Workforce Development, the numbers have never been better, said executive director Baltazar De Anda Santana, noting that more students are enrolling in classes and earning credentials, ranging from GEDs to certifications in the building trades.
It’s no small victory, considering that the pandemic meant completely rethinking how the adult education school works. When the school moved classes online back in the spring, De Anda and his staff worried that students might struggle to adjust. But the results shocked him.
The Latino Academy teams up with the Urban League of Greater Madison to offer a class for students looking to earn commercial driver’s licenses, and such classes typically enroll 15 to 20 students. But when they announced a virtual incarnation would start in November, more than 70 signed up.
In an interview the week before the class began, De Anda laughed as he wondered aloud how they’d pull off such a large class. “We’ll see,” he said.
But the class started smoothly, and, after doing several weeks of online work, the students will meet individually with an instructor to practice behind the wheel.
“The pandemic destroyed many things, but it did not destroy the drive, the tenacity and the resilience of our communities,” De Anda said.
“We cannot use COVID as an excuse not to provide services to the community we serve,” he said, noting that the school is still working to help those who haven’t overcome the technological challenges.
He recalled a recent webinar, in which he was asked what keeps him up at night. “I said, you know, the students are being creative, they are thinking outside the box. So what keeps us awake is, how can we match those expectations? What else can we do?”
Liliana Silva Chavez is just one of the students who kept her goal firmly in sight despite the pandemic. Back in Mexico, she left school after junior high, attending adult education classes until she moved to the U.S. at 19. After 16 years in Madison, the prep cook and mother of three began GED classes at the Latino Academy last January, hoping to set an example for her children. When she brought them with her — the program provides childcare — they’d proudly announce that they were going to their mom’s school.
It’s difficult when you haven’t held a textbook in years, she said, and when you never studied U.S. history or government as a kid, but she completed one course after another, and her children celebrated each certificate she earned.
Back in March, Silva passed all parts of the GED exam except math, so when classes moved online, she stuck with it. As employers cut hours, she took a second job, and when she had to work during class time, she’d slip on her headphones, prop her phone on the counter and listen to her lesson as she chopped.
In November, she retook the math exam, and then refreshed her email all day, waiting for the results. The next morning, she got her answer: She’d passed.
“It’s very comfortable to know that you achieved it, that you were able to do it, that it’s possible.
“I told myself at the time that I don’t care how long it takes, it’s something that I want to do. I did it — and it didn’t take too long,” she said with a laugh.
But just two weeks after passing her last test, Silva started feeling sick, and soon tested positive for COVID. Julio Garcia, director of education at the Latino Academy, regularly calls graduates like Silva to congratulate them and help them plan what training they want to pursue next, but in recent weeks, the bad news threatens to outpace the good. Earlier in the pandemic, he and his colleagues would hear around two reports a week of students or their family members testing positive. But since the beginning of November, it’s often two a day.
“Reports of a new student contracting COVID are coming in constantly, and now it’s usually the whole family that comes down with it,” Garcia said in an email.
“It is ravaging our student body and our students' bodies.”
Until we can dance again
Weeks before Evers would order businesses to close, months before they’d fall ill themselves, the Avilas knew this virus was dangerous. That’s why, in early March, they indefinitely cancelled the highlight of their week: the weekly practices of their Ballet Folklórico Mexico dance company. The group consists of around 70 members, a mix of children and adults who meet at Centro Hispano each week to learn and practice Mexican folk and Indigenous dances.
Some members suggested they meet in smaller groups, but Carlos was adamant. “I told them no, we can't do that because if you would get sick, Sonia and I would feel really bad,” Carlos said. “This is way too much. It's something that people get sick and die of.”
The group stays in touch through a Facebook group. Several members have shared that they’ve tested positive, and others have offered to bring anything they might need. When the Avilas got sick, members of the group brought soup to their door.
Sonia thinks it’s a miracle that she survived. “God is so great that I think he put his hands on me,” she said. “I believe God gave me another chance.”
She’s not taking any risks with that second chance. When she has to leave the house to get food or to care for her grandchildren, she wears her mask and bundles up, scared that she could get the virus again and that it could be worse the second time around.
For now, the Avilas busy themselves creating intricate outfits for members of the dance company. Making just one of the feathered outfits they wear to perform Aztec dances, inspired by the traditional outfits of Mexican Native American communities, takes more than two months, Carlos said. They’ve already made one for the youngest member of the dance company — 5-year-old Jason Telles— and they’re currently working on an outfit dedicated to Tlaloc, the Aztec god of fertility and water.
Sonia hopes the outfits make the members even more excited to return. But with the pandemic still raging in Wisconsin, they’re not making any guesses about when that might be.
“We will see how long this goes on for,” Carlos said. “Sooner or later, they will find a cure. I know that they're getting close to finding a cure. Very close.”
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