Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

N.C. Latina leaders on how to strengthen community healthcare options

A screenshot of our November panel on health equity in Latinx communities in N.C.

A recap of Southerly and Enlace Latino NC’s panel on healthy equity for Latinx populations in the state.

This story is in partnership with Enlace Latino NC. Léalo en español.

In June 2020, COVID-19 reached its peak in North Carolina. The Latinx community was disproportionately affected, making up nearly half of the cases where ethnicity was known, despite being 9.6% of the state’s population. The rise in cases came at a point when some politicians across the state expressed outright hostility toward Latinos. In July, U.S. Senator Tom Tillis (R-N.C.) blamed Latinos for high rates of infection. But essential workers, the majority of whom are people of color, were not being protected on the job, including at poultry plants and in agriculture operations where many rural Latinx residents work. 

Amid political division and unique obstacles facing Latinx populations—including language barriers and limited or no health insurance options—the community felt betrayed. But with strong community organizing and partnerships between public and private health sectors, those statistics dramatically shifted. And so did mutual trust. N.C.’s Latinx population currently stands as the most vaccinated demographic in the state. 

Throughout the pandemic, Enlace Latino NC and Southerly have covered stories featuring some of the key players in ensuring farmworkers, poultry plant workers, and their families and neighbors can access healthcare, including COVID-19 prevention resources and vaccines. We invited them to speak about what they have learned and accomplished this year and how these wins will strengthen a future of health equity beyond the pandemic.

Video of the live-streamed event is available in Spanish on Enlace Latino NC’s Facebook page.

Dr. Viviana Martinez-Bianchi practices family medicine in Durham, N.C. As one of the co-founders of LATIN-19 and an early consultant to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) for COVID-19, she has become both a spokesperson and household name in the state’s Latinx community. A public group of community members, organizers, doctors, academics, teachers and more, LATIN-19 began holding meetings on March 18, 2020. Martinez-Bianchi said that 50 to 90 people attend the meetings each Wednesday. (You can sign up here.)

The doctor emphasized during our panel that, after 30 years in this country practicing medicine, a democratic, public space was finally created “where the Latino community’s voice is amplified.” She stressed that it was among the first times Latinx people were being heard on such a grand scale in healthcare. 

“It is a safe space where the community can communicate,” Martinez-Bianchi said. “We’ve achieved changes within healthcare from the local system to [working to] influence public policy.” 

In rural areas, Latinx workers in the meatpacking and agricultural industry have been tremendously affected by COVID-19. Our readers (and listeners of this Living Downstream  podcast episode) have undoubtedly heard the story of Esmeralda Dominguez, an immigrant mother in Duplin County, N.C. who transformed her family’s prolonged COVID-19 scare into the fuel she needed to work endless hours as a promotora, or community healthcare worker, with the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry. Almost every family Dominguez knows has someone who works in the food industry—many in the fields picking tobacco and vegetables, others at the five large meatpacking and poultry plants spread throughout the county. 

Despite almost two years of persistent public pressure by workers and advocates during the pandemic, not much has changed at the state or federal level to require companies to offer better protections. In turn, Dominguez and her team of promotores have helped vaccinate thousands of workers, including educating a community receiving an onslaught of disinformation on social media surrounding healthcare. 

Moving forward, Dominguez said it was important to acknowledge that the healthcare system serving the Latinx population in her region is “deficient.” She emphasized the push for clinic hours that accommodate workers’ schedules and Spanish-language interpreters in the clinics, as required by law. 

Former youth farmworker and NC Field executive director Yesenia Cuello joined the panel to discuss how moments throughout recent history have affected the work of Latinx community, including youth. She mentioned the 2008 recession pushed many children into agricultural work under the radar to help families earn income. The same began happening in 2020, Cuello said, with an increased number of youth working in the fields. “Without school being in session, there were no other opportunities.”

Esmeralda Dominguez leads a meeting with fellow community health workers at the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry about their outreach impact in rural Latino communities over the course of spring 2021. (Photo by Bridgette Cyr)

Unfortunately, “people still have a veil over their eyes,” she said during the panel—they don’t see the hidden child labor in the fields and the lack of protections that kids experience. Cuello said it is important to continue elevating the voices of the youth within conversations around worker health.

Yazmin Garcia-Rico has spent 10 months in her role as director of Hispanic/Latinx policy and strategy at NCDHHS, a new position at the agency. She’s focused on vaccinations, and said that while we may not be seeing all the immediate results from the community’s collaborations, “the connections are there.”

“This collaboration has been essential,” she said. “There is a lot of work happening on the regional level being supported by the health department. Like the community health promoters, who are knocking on doors, making calls, sending texts. They are also an essential element.” 

She emphasized that Latina women are getting vaccinated at a faster rate than men, indicating that mothers who are caring for children every day are taking their family’s health seriously. 

According to the most recent NCDHHS data as of Nov. 23, 69% of Hispanic residents age 12 and older are vaccinated with at least one dose, a rate 12% higher than the non-Hispanic population.

This panel was Southerly and Enlace Latino NC’s last virtual event of the year and it drew the most amount of participation from our readers. Using Enlace Latino NC’s Whatsapp channel, Spanish-speaking readers texted us throughout the event to ask questions of the panelists, which resulted in a rich dialogue about access to healthcare, the halting of Medicaid expansion and more. You can watch the Q&A here, in Spanish, around the 40-minute mark.

Victoria Bouloubasis covers the intersection of environmental issues and economic mobility in Latinx, immigrant, and refugee communities in North Carolina for Southerly and Enlace Latino NC. She is a journalist and filmmaker based in Durham.

This story was supported by Solutions Journalism Network.