The temperature was hitting 88 degrees in Oakland, California on the morning of August 15. On the corner of East 15th Street and Fruitvale Avenue, a long line of volunteers was waiting to receive supplies for the day.
Street Level Health Project—a free clinic in Oakland that provides services for recent immigrants, Indigenous communities, day laborers and uninsured populations in the surrounding area—had organized a day of action with local Latino and Mayan Mam speaking community leaders. The event was in response to the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the Fruitvale neighborhood, and was sponsored by Alameda County Public Health Department’s (ACPHD) “Mask On!” initiative.
The volunteers, most of whom were from the Mam speaking community, walked through Fruitvale to educate residents and businesses on the virus, and handed out masks and hand sanitizer bottles provided by ACPHD.
Days before, ABC News had reported that 94601, the zip code pertaining to Fruitvale, was one of three zip codes in Alameda county that had coronavirus rates higher than those of Florida and Georgia. Gabriela Galicia, executive director of Street Level Health Project, noted that Latino and Mam speaking residents were being impacted the most.
Data from the ACPHD shows that Latinos have more positive coronavirus cases than Black, white, and Asian American residents combined. As of August 25, there were 8,239 positive cases among Latino residents in the county, making up nearly 50 percent of all of Alameda county’s coronavirus cases, even though Latinos only make up 22 percent of the county’s residents. Latinos make up 52 percent of Fruitvale’s population, partly explaining why the area is one of the hardest hit regions in the county.
What’s missing from the data, according to first hand experience from Street Level workers, Highland Hospital workers, Fruitvale community leaders, and college youth group Desarrollo Maya, is that the Mam speaking community is being further disproportionately affected. The county currently counts them as Latinos, so the data cannot reflect this.
Many point to the systemic factors that cause rapid spread of the virus. Kimmi Watkins-Tartt, director of ACPHD, noted that regions like Fruitvale have higher numbers of essential workers and higher rates of housing overcrowding due to lower household incomes, making it easier for the virus to spread.
“Most of us don’t have what’s required to stop the spread of the virus,” said Watkins, referring to separate bathrooms, rooms where a sick person can be isolated and the privilege to not have to cook for family. “Individuals have jobs where there’s no paid leave. You live in an overcrowded house, and you have to go to work where you may or may not have sufficient PPE. Then you come home and transmit to people in your household.”
Carmelina Calmo, a member of the Mam community who also works for ACPHD and volunteered that day, stated that besides having little resources, rent is too high, so “there are two-bedroom apartments with two families in them, or three-bedroom apartments with three. If someone carrying the virus enters that home, they’re going to transmit it.”
A lot of these factors are out of the control of the families who suffer from them. Edgar Lorenzo Perez, another volunteer from the Mam speaking community, spoke about some of the barriers his community faces. The Guatemalan government, with support from the U.S., fought a 36-year long civil-war against its indigenous people and peasants. Indigenous communities like the Mayan Mam continue to be discriminated against to this day. Additionally, globalization and the legacies of war have debilitated Guatemala’s economy.
“A young person gets a college degree, but isn’t able to find a job afterwards,” said Perez. “We face many barriers, so we come to the U.S. in search of better opportunities.”
Once here, Mam leaders have found ways to build resources. Perez has worked with various organizations like Street Level, and organizes several local soccer leagues in an effort “to keep young people away from drugs and gangs.”
Paradoxically, however, the pandemic limits the support and resources that are generally available to those living under the conditions Watkins and Calmo described.
Street Level usually functions as a free drop-in community center that provides services to newly arrived migrants. Before the pandemic, they helped migrants navigate health resources and get in touch with immigration lawyers. They enrolled community members into health insurance programs. Volunteer doctors and nurses provided basic check-ups twice a week. A mental health team provided bilingual services for people in crisis. A nutritional herbalist helped people develop healthier diets and provided non-western medicinal remedies that were familiar to many of the community members. Street Level also provided hot meals for day laborers and their families three times a week, held workshops on workers’ rights, matched day laborers with employers, and took measures to protect them from wage theft.
However, since the shelter-in-place ordinance, Street Level’s programs have been drastically changed, limiting the resources that would otherwise be beneficial to those most affected. Check-ups are still available for people with urgent cases, but other drop-in services were moved remotely. Day laborer programs essentially came to a halt, and have only recently started recuperating. Galicia is grateful that food distribution doubled, but the community building that Street Level’s office provided is no longer there.
All of this is affecting the community’s mental health. Street Level’s mental health team is busier than ever, and have reported an increase in cases of anxiety and insomnia.
Watkins stated that the county is taking measures to mitigate the situation in heavily affected zip codes. They have expanded testing at Native American Health Center and La Clínica de la Raza, and have recently passed a resolution that will provide financial support to people who don’t have paid sick leave. Meanwhile, volunteers and community leaders are trying to do their part, and community members are noticing.
On the day of Street Level’s event, one resident passionately thanked a group of volunteers after receiving his ration, and as one of the volunteer groups walked up Fruitvale Avenue, a car driving by shouted “chjonta tey!” Thank you, in Mam.