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Hear audio of our interview with Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez aired on KNSJ: click here

In exclusive interviews, ECM spoke with Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez and Chicano Federation leaders on the problems and potential solutions

By Briana Gomez

July 28, 2020 (San Diego’s East County) – After ECM’s special report on May 28 on the high rate of COVID-19 among local Latinos, the County of San Diego announced on July 21 that it is launching a new TV, radio, online and signage outreach campaign to the local Latino community aimed at overcoming information barriers on COVID-19. As of July 21, of more than 24,000 COVID-19 cases in our county with known race/ethnicity, about 60% are Hispanics or Latinos, yet Hispanics/Latinos make up only about 34% of the local population.

According to recent data from the Center for Disease Control, Hispanics are four times more likely to contract COVID-19 than non-Hispanic white U.S. Americans.

This information is concerning for many across the nation, especially in cities like San Diego, which hold larger populations of Hispanic and Latinx individuals. 

Back in May, the data for San Diego County reflected that Latinos made up 58 percent overall COVID cases for the county, as ECM reported. As of June 18, 2020, CBS reported that 70 percent of Coronavirus cases in San Diego County were in Latinos.

Now, county health officials and politicians are paying attention. But will the new efforts be enough to substantially reduce the troubling toll? 

“The numbers we’re seeing in the Latino community are cause for concern and it’s critical that we look for ways to address the factors driving these kinds of trends,” said County Supervisor Dianna Jacob of District 2 who represents 620,000 residents. “I appreciate that our public health team has put a spotlight on this because we clearly need to strengthen our approach.”


Chicano Federation seeks to address economic issues

The Chicano Federation, a local nonprofit with offices in the North Park neighborhood, has been working with the county on a variety of projects related to poverty and food insecurity resulting from the COVID-19 shutdowns, as ECM first reported on May 28.

The organization also works directly with community members to address public health issues in the local Latinx community, but for those in the field, seeing the Hispanic/Latinx community suffer disproportionately was expected. 

Roberto Alcantar, Chief Strategy Officer of the Chicano Federation said, “For our organization seeing the numbers [rise] didn’t shock us at all, it’s actually something that we were very concerned about from the beginning.”

“A lot of the essential workers that are low wage are Latino and live in the communities that have been most heavily impacted,” said Alcanta., “Their risk of getting the virus is a lot higher because they don’t have the luxury of staying home.”

The Chicano Federation has worked with several individuals who work in the fast food industry and others who are grocery store workers. These workers were forced to work daily and often in unsafe conditions. 

Alcantar also discussed existing health issues in the community such as diabetes and asthma due to environmental conditions and lack of access to healthcare as contributive factors for those at-risk of contracting COVID-19. These co-morbidity factors also lead to higher hospitalization and morbidity rates. 

“In South County asthma has been a lot more prevalent with a lot of our children,” said Alcantar who grew up in South County and suffered with asthma. 

Not only are there environmental issues, but dietary habits in the Latinx community haven’t been catered to modern health practices.

“A lot of our communities don’t have access to healthy food,” Alcantar added, mentioning high obesity rates.

According to data from 2018, Hispanic Americans were 1.2 times more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white Americans.  This may seem like an insignificant increase, but in 2019 it was a difference between 78.8 percent of Hispanic American women compared to 64 percent of non-Hispanic white Americans, per information from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health. 

Crowded living conditions in the Latinx community with multiple generations or multiple families - some of who are essential workers - also make it more difficult to control the spread.

“Housing is so expensive in San Diego that some families have to share 2-3 families under one roof,” said Alcantar.

Besides the inability to quarantine, underlying health conditions, and crowded living situations, Latinos have faced economic injustices which have translated into lower quality healthcare. These economic gaps have also affected students who have been forced to self-study at home due to shutdowns.

“Historically we’ve seen the disparities between the quality of healthcare in our communities an you look at from the beginning even just access to testing sites from the very beginning, I mean it was north of the Interstate 8 where you don’t see as many low-income folks,” said Alcantar. 

This disparity has also affected students in low income communities, who do not have laptops to engage in distance learning after the schools closed, he noted.

Alcantar also believes that the initial information that was dispersed wasn’t catered to the Latino community due to “not enough information in other languages… but also the dissemination of information. A lot of the folks that we serve primarily in communities of color, in the Latino community, they tend to be wary of the government and official channels,” said Alcantar, adding, “They’re not gonna feel comfortable going on to the county website or calling the county office, or something, to ask about what’s happening…They go to organizations like ours.”

The Chicano Federation and its history with health outcomes has come in handy since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Nancy Maldonado, President and CEO of the Chicano Federation, obtained her doctorate in public health from UCSD; her emphasis was health behaviors. 

“A lot of my research was focusing on improving health outcomes in underserved communities,” said Maldonado, “but one of the things that was obviously really glaringly obvious is that when you go into underserved communities, a message about health and wellness doesn’t resonate and people are worried about meeting their basic needs first.”

Maldonado found herself at the Chicano Federation as the  nonprofit was addressing affordable housing and subsidized child care, so she could help the local Chicanos and other underserved community members meet those basic needs. She thought that eventually the organization would be able to talk to people about health outcomes, but the opportunity came sooner than expected.

“Anybody that’s been in health has been seeing that coming for years, right? Like that economic inequality IS a public health crisis and it has been for years, and we’ve seen it in terms of access to health care,” said Maldonado.

After meeting basic needs, the next step in addressing public health behaviors of the Latinx communities would require addressing systemic problems. 

“Until we address those deeply rooted structural inequities, we’re never going to level the playing field. It stems so much further from access to healthcare and education,” Maldonado told ECM. “We have to back as far as red-lining and gentrification, if we don’t start at the root cause, we’re never going to be able to reach a full equity and equality in any of these fields.”

Whereas Alcantar said he didn’t know of any families specifically who were treated differently by doctors due to having state-funded medical insurances, Maldonado has heard of individuals being treated poorly and dismissed by doctors because of their Latinx heritage and presentation.

“I don’t think it’s any surprise that we’ve heard from families, not just here locally, but across the country of their symptoms not being taken serious and to anybody who has been in the public health system or works with communities of color, again I don’t think that that’s news to us because it goes back to those structural inequities and those deep rooted biases that are coming forth in all of this,” Maldonado said. “While I haven’t worked directly with anyone that has been turned away, those stories are out there about people’s symptoms not being taken seriously…”

In Maldonado’s view, the County’s actions don’t go far enough. “Obviously the data is coming from the County so our elected officials are aware of it. One of the things that we’ve been advocating for is to put a plan in place for how we’re going to address these high rates of infection particularly in South County and we have yet to see that. In fact, when we first sounded the alarm on these high rates of infection in South County, the response from the County was not to read too much into these numbers.”

Even now, Maldonado noted, “They’re not telling us how many people are infected and haven’t been tested.” Unlike the County, Maldonado suspects that the real rates of infection are actually higher than reported among Hispanics, not lower.

Maldonado knows of undocumented families where the breadwinners are afraid to be tested because they cannot afford to quarantine and state aid is unavailable to them – they did not receive stimulus checks and are ineligible for unemployment insurance benefits and other state aid. 

Aside from general public health outcomes, the Chicano Federation’s food distribution is a novel project for the organization, which hopes to shift some of this focus from providing food to providing funds directly to families.

“We were an organization that never did [food] distributions or anything like that and that became one of the biggest needs at the very beginning, was for us to really reshift some of our work and become a food pantry and food distribution center for our community, said Alcantar. “What we’re seeing now more of is less of a food, but more of we just need money to be able to pay for rent, to be to pay bills.”

Maldonado agrees and hopes to be able to begin providing families with funds to enable themselves to buy necessities or pay bills at their own discretion.

“There’s a sense of ‘I don’t want to wait in line for four hours to get a bag of canned food; what we need is financial assistance and the respect and the dignity to make the decisions on our own,’” said Maldonado. 

The organization has tried to reallocate resources to providing funds for families instead of large-scale food distributions. Maldonado is collaborating with other service providers in order to poll the underserved communities on what their real needs are, both immediate and long-term. 

“I think about the mental health aspect. What effect is it having on a child to have to sit in line for four hours to have to receive a bag of food? What message are we sending that child?” Maldonado asked rhetorically. 

The Chicano Federation is also focusing its current work on encouraging the Latinx community to fill out the census in order to be counted correctly and to be able to procure government funding accordingly. 

“There’s definitely been a historical attempt to really whitewash the population in multiple sectors,” said Alcantar. “The census has been one of the biggest abusers of that and there’s been a lot of books and research done on that topic as to how the classification of white for other communities of color has underrepresented our communities as a whole and the resources that we get, and so we definitely have seen some improvements…but I think part of what we’ve seen during this crisis is basically living out the failure of an undercount of the census.” . 

Whitewashing inflates the number of white Americans, while simultaneously taking necessary funding from minorities who are counted as white, or not counted at all. 

Whitewashing data and groups has been one of many issues of concern regarding public health. 

Other issues are a lack of proper labor guidelines that have forced low-pay essential workers to continue working in spite of the stay-at-home order. Media outlets have documented outbreaks among farm workers and workers in factories where in some cases, workers were not provided with masks, gloves, or opportunities for social distancing. Cal Matters reported on July 2 that at the Primex pistachio packing plant in the San Joaquin Valley, 112 workers and family members have contracted COVID-19.  

Maldonado referenced undocumented families who have made contact with the Chicano Federation and people who are afraid to stop working because they were not allowed to retrieve the stimulus money and are not eligible for unemployment.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez-Fletcher shares concerns and efforts to assist Latinos

In an exclusive interview with ECM, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, shared her concerns over the devastating impacts of COVID-19 on the Latino community statewide as well as locally. She is the former head of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council and now represents Assembly District 80, which encompasses Southern San Diego.

“We’re seeing that in particular, and a lot of people don’t like to admit to this, that we rely heavily in this state on undocumented workers and during this entire process we saw how unfair that was – on one hand we call undocumented workers essential works they’re still picking in our farms, they’re still picking in our fields, they’re getting COVID unfortunately at very high rates, they’re sewing masks and getting COVID and dying at high rates doing that,” Gonzalez told ECM.

She emphasized the need for undocumented workers in sweatshops to provide the rest of society their metaphorical security blankets.

“The people who are most affected by the virus tend to be those who entered into this time period with the most vulnerabilities,” the Assemblywoman said. “We’re seeing people still have to work as essential workers through this pandemic and they tend to be working class as well without access necessarily to healthcare, access to capital in a way that would allow them to stay home.”

Gonzalez has been warning others about the approach of August 1, when the federal pandemic unemployment supplement ends and citizens relying on this assistance will be in financial predicaments.

She has advocated various programs on a state and county level to protect essential workers both documented and undocumented. She rallied for more culturally sensitive, translated materials to be distributed among the Latinx community.

“Sometimes it didn’t translate correctly, I kept telling the folks at the county, you keep talking about backyard barbecues but they’re talking about going to grandma’s for her birthday,” said Gonzalez.  Sometimes the way we talk about things and the way we express it don’t provide our communities with enough information.”

Gonzalez and the Latino caucus have demanded another meeting with Governor Gavin Newsom to find out what his plans are in areas where Latinos are most affected.

Gonzalez spoke with a doctor at USC, who said 90 percent of hospitalizations are Latino [in that area]. She also spoke with a doctor at Stanford who told her that 70 percent of the hospitalizations are Latino. 

“Our community is being ravaged by this…we know it’s a serious issue and a lot of folks  who are saying it’s not serious just haven’t felt  it when one of their family members or someone that they know got it,” said Gonzalez. 

Gonzalez supported a program with the Governor to allow undocumented workers who pay taxes with a matriculation number to retrieve some funds during this period. That program is being distributed by Jewish Family Services.

Gonzalez’s office also put out various materials with resource links and information in Spanish on her website

While the crisis of undocumented workers remains an issue, some citizen gig-workers who file their annual taxes using the infamous 10-99 tax form, also found themselves in a similar predicament. 

Assemblywoman Gonzalez recently helped author and obtain the Gig-Worker Law (AB5) which passed at the end of 2019. Gonzalez didn’t foresee the COVID-19 crisis, but she knew that independent contractors were not always treated fairly in California. 

“This matters right now more than ever, it means that those employees have access to unemployment insurance if they’re laid off, it means that they have access to paid family leave, paid sick days, minimum wage, overtime…often it means healthcare, so these are issues that I think we’re finding out more than ever why these safety net programs are so important,” Gonzalez said. 

Under this law, certain companies who were paying regular workers as independent contractors were forced to make those workers employees, even if their labor was part-time. This ended up proving helpful for some recently reclassified workers when the quarantine took effect, because many were able to easily obtain benefits from unemployment insurance. 

However, despite the efforts of AB5, Gonzalez continues to face backlash both from small business owners who cannot afford to provide benefits for their employees, but also from gig-workers who lost jobs and income when this bill took effect.  Some organizations have sued and reforms to exempt freelance writers and many musicians are pending in the Legislature. 

“There are a lot of corporations who don’t like the bill AB5 that we did, what we said is you can no longer skirt labor laws by requiring somebody to be an independent contractor rather than an employee and not providing them with the basics that are required of employment in California,” said the Assemblywoman. 

Gonzalez reiterated that the AB5 actually came out of a Supreme Court Decision called Dynamex that took place in 2018 (Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v Superior Court). AB5 was a derivative of that decision that made clarifications on how that ruling would be implemented.

Jessica Avila is an aerial performer and aerial instructor from San Diego who worked most of her life as a gig-worker. Avila started being paid to perform at a young age and has made a career for herself as an aerialist. Avila had various jobs during the year, ranging from teaching regularly at studios to larger performances for event facilities. 

Prior to AB5, Avila was a consistent independent contractor. After the law passed, the studios where Avila taught were forced to list her as an employee. Meanwhile Avila still worked some gigs as an independent contractor. Other contracts for larger companies where Avila would have performed regularly were postponed as those companies could not afford to hire Avila as an employee. 

“Being forced to become a regular employee and lose so much gig work and performance work because people no longer want to or are able to hire us without making use of employees for one-time gigs is awful,” said Avila. 

This not only can create a tax nightmare, but when COVID-19 hit the United States, Avila found herself grappling with the regulations on unemployment – she was laid off both as an employee and as someone who was self-employed, thus creating another bureaucratic ruckus with the Employment Development Department.

“It’s [the principles of being] American to be able to have the freedom to decide if I want to be employed traditionally or make my own way as long as I pay taxes…which I learned after many, many years in this industry to finally do correctly and now I have to learn a new way,” said Avila.

Like many other local Latinas, Avila lives in a multi-family home. Her aunt who is a healthcare worker also lives in the residence. Avila and her roommates have had to take extra precautions to keep their other household members safe.

Avila belongs to a Facebook group of former gig-workers who are fighting to undo or modify AB5. Avila and other members of that particular group have tried several times to reach out to Assemblywomen Gonzalez unsuccessfully, she said.

“We never asked for this and we are definitely seeing entire industries crumble under AB5,” Avila stated.

Both Gonzalez and Avila were recently exposed to COVID-positive individuals through family members and both have had to undergo strict quarantine despite testing negative.

This irony illustrates the encompassing disparities of the Latinx communities, regardless of income and life path. 

Briana Gomez holds an MBA from the University of La Verne and a Bachelor of Science in International Business from Azusa Pacific University. A freelance journalist, she is originally from La Mesa and lived in Japan for five years in her youth. She later took an interest in travelling and learning about global cultures and cultural identities  She taught English in Hungary in 2013 before obtaining her master’s degree, then returning to the U.S.  to pursue journalism and research multicultural communication. 

Gomez has written for online and local publications in Budapest and in her native San Diego, including coverage in East County Magazine on multicultural communities. She is passionate about human rights and minority issues, bringing awareness to ethnic groups in our region. She also sits on the committee for the Arab and Muslim Community Coalition and is an active member of the San Diego Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee and San Diego House of Lebanon. 

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