Documenting Latinos’ Experiences in the COVID-19 Pandemic

In mid-March, UT journalism professor Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez had no way of knowing how long the pandemic would last. She certainly didn’t expect that Latinos would come to be overrepresented in the growing number of coronavirus deaths. Her students had left campus for spring break, their plans already altered by the looming threat of the novel coronavirus, and she was wondering how to address it in an editor’s note for the VOCES Oral History Project’s annual U.S. Latina & Latino Oral History Journal

For 21 years, VOCES has served as the leading oral history archive in the country documenting the experiences of Latinos. While it began as a way to capture the stories of Latino World War II veterans, over the years it has expanded to paint a clearer picture of the Latino experience in the U.S., including the stories of soldiers who fought in other conflicts, civil rights activists, political leaders, and cultural figures. As the organization’s founder and director, Rivas-Rodriguez knew the pandemic would be an important opportunity to continue that work, but with social distancing guidelines in place, she had to rethink her entire operation.  

So she and her staff of current graduate students and alumni began planning what would become the VOCES of a Pandemic series—an archive of Latino voices captured during this historic moment, teasing the upcoming project in her newsletter.  

As coronavirus cases increased across the country, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention obtained by The New York Times showed that Latinos, along with people from Black communities, are three times as likely to contract coronavirus and twice as likely to die from the virus as their white counterparts. “I just knew that it was something really tumultuous going on in our country, and in the world,” she says. “This is a lot of work, but it’s necessary so that years from now, when the history of the pandemic is written, we are included.”  

Soon after sending out her newsletter in March, the country’s health crisis became more urgent.  

With only a handful of cases across the state during the first weeks of March, Texas surpassed 10,000 within the first 10 days of April. Data from the Texas Department of State Health Services shows that, at presstime, Latinos make up 39 percent of the state’s confirmed cases, and 55 percent of coronavirus fatalities. Though those numbers weren’t as bleak in late spring, Rivas-Rodriguez knew it would be important to record the experiences of Latinos as the pandemic continued.  

Normally, VOCES interviews are carried out in-person with the help of staff or students, but to ensure everyone’s safety, they pivoted to remote interviews over Zoom. The VOCES team tapped into their personal networks, getting suggestions for interviews, or even setting up calls with friends and family members to get a glimpse of how the virus had changed their lives.  

Seven partner organizations (including Rutgers University, Iowa State University’s Latino Studies Program, and UT Rio Grande Valley) joined, contributing additional interviewers. By the end of August, they had completed nearly 80 interviews with subjects ranging from teachers and student activists to essential workers. Like all other VOCES interviews, these conversations will be archived and made available in an online database. Historically, these materials have served as valuable resources for academics, journalists, and museums. 

In an interview with Fernando Jimenez, the undocumented worker in Phoenix, Arizona, talks about the pressure he faces continuing his construction job in order to provide for his family, while understanding that his options for health care are extremely limited if he contracts the virus. “If I get sick, I don’t have the rights to go to the doctor … I have to deal with it by myself however I can,” he said. “It’s scary. There would be a tremendous impact [on my family] if I get sick. I’m the head of the family, who provides. There would be a big impact.”  

Vincent Peña, a journalism graduate student and assistant director at VOCES who interviewed Jimenez, says research he conducted on previous pandemics before they began the series helped solidify the importance of the endeavor. “There wasn’t much information out there about the Latino experience during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, or even the AIDS pandemic in the ’80s,” he says.  

As the interviews continued, he noticed most of the people they spoke to were being hit on all sides by the pandemic. Yajaira Rangel, an elementary teacher in Mesquite, Texas, spoke about a student of hers who wasn’t turning in her work once classes went online. After setting up a visit with her, Rangel discovered her student’s mother had lost her job and they’d been having technical difficulties with the device she needed for school. “I wanted her to know I’m here, and whatever we have to do, we’re going to do it together,” she said in her interview. On top of caring for her students, Rangel also worries about her family. Her mother’s husband and aunt are both undocumented, meaning they weren’t eligible to receive any financial aid from the federal government through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.  

Six months into the pandemic, it’s still unclear how long it will last. As the first vaccine trials begin and a second stimulus package is still stalled in Congress, the VOCES of a pandemic series presses on. In a time full of uncertainty, they’re not sure how long their project will continue, but they remain committed to telling their stories.  

“We’re set to be the largest ethnic group in the country, so I think it’s really important to take account of the Latino community and understand that we’re not a monolith,” Peña says. “We’re people of different immigration statuses, backgrounds, and races, and documenting our experiences has always been important. It’s not just something we should only do when people are dying.” 


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