Luz Gallegos remembers her uncle, Luis Carranza, as a staple of his Catholic church in Southern California. He was also a religious leader in her family, present for her wedding, her children’s baptisms and other important milestones.
But when he died from COVID-19 during a trip to Mexico this spring, Gallegos, who lives in Riverside County, could only mourn him through a computer screen, by virtually attending an online mass held by his parish.
“COVID has taken us to a point where we can't even be with our loved ones,” Gallegos said, while struggling to hold back tears. “There’s no words to explain how much pain we have.”
Thousands of Latino Californians are grappling with not only the loss of a loved one from COVID-19, but the inability to say goodbye. Twenty nine percent of Latino residents say they know someone who has died of the virus, compared to 19% of all Californians, according to a recent poll from Ipsos and the California Health Care Foundation.
Cesar Castaneda, mental health administrator for La Familia Counseling Center in Sacramento, says they’ve seen an increase in the need for their psychological support services over the course of the pandemic as more people lose loved ones, or even multiple loved ones, to the virus.
Castaneda says not being able to hold family gatherings or funerals makes death more difficult for family members, and that could lead to more mental health issues later on.
“The typical ways that we as a culture like to … celebrate the life of our ancestors, you're really not able to do that,” he said. “And so it kind of leaves you with an emptiness.”
Castaneda also worries the pandemic is creating a generation of Latino children experiencing the trauma of losing a loved one.
For many in the Latino community, this year has been defined by grief for those who’ve passed, and concern for those who remain at risk. Latinos make up 48 percent of California’s COVID-19 deaths, even though they only represent 40 percent of the population, according to state health statistics.
Experts say the high death rates are related to work and health care trends; Latinos make up a greater percentage of the essential workforce,often lack health care benefits and may be hesitant to seek out care due to financial distress or deportation fears. Advocates are pushing for policies and programs that could help protect Latino workers, including undocumented immigrants, as the pandemic wears on.
An Essential Workforce
Fifty-five percent of Latino Californians are employed as essential workers — in agriculture, construction, product-stocking and other occupations that require close proximity between workers, according to the UC Berkeley Labor Center. Only 35% of white Californians hold these types of jobs.
And Gallegos, executive director of the Todec Legal Center which assists undocumented residents in Southern California, says people will often put their wages above their health.
“We know our workers, especially those who don’t have any type of benefits, won’t isolate because they want to continue working regardless of how they feel,” she said. “They want to make sure they have revenue to keep their homes, pay the rent, feed their families.”
Some counties, including Sacramento County, are providing financial and housing assistance to these workers so they can stay home from work if they test positive for COVID-19.
Sandra Hernández, president of the California Health Care Foundation, says this approach is a first step toward preventing spread in the Latino community, but more is needed.
“These programs are really being piecemealed together in lieu of a comprehensive paid sick leave policy,” she said. “To address what is an enormous problem in a community that has really kept our economy going even while the rest of us have been working virtually … you need to take extra steps to protect people.”
She says employers should give Latino essential workers masks, sanitizer and other protective equipment and governments should provide up-to-date public health information from trusted sources in their primary language.
Afraid To Seek Care
Early in the pandemic, most people could only access a COVID-19 test if they were referred by their primary care physician.
But many Latino Californians don’t have primary care physicians because they lack insurance. The ethnic group has the lowest rate of employment-sponsored insurance, and many are not eligible for Medi-Cal due to their immigration status.
University of California, Los Angeles researcher David Hayes-Bautista says the lack of coverage prevents many Latinos from seeking out medical care until their conditions have progressed to a dangerous point.
“Latinos were coming in, way advanced cases, into the ER,” he said, referring to what he saw at the Adventist Health White Memorial Hospital in the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles where he is a board member.
Getting treatment too late can mean people die suddenly, and alone. Hayes-Bautista says that’s also hard for family members.
“Someone will pass their last few hours, isolated, intubated and maybe using Facetime to say goodbye,” he said. “That is very, very difficult.”
Advocates say deportation worries also keep many Latinos from seeking testing or reporting their symptoms during the pandemic.
“There's this tremendous amount of fear in the Latinx community and in families that are of mixed immigrant status,” Hernández said, adding that many people didn’t know where they could safely get tested.
Some groups have been pushing the state to provide subsidized health insurance for all Californians regardless of immigration status, but those efforts stalled at the start of the pandemic.
Hayes-Bautista says the lack of investment in health care access for undocumented immigrants is part of why the COVID death rates as so high among that community.
“It is what we allow to happen as a society, I think is very, very sad.”
Finding Ways To Grieve
In early October, the largely-Latino-serving St. Mary Cemetery and Funeral Center in Sacramento held an on-site and virtual mass for COVID-19 victims.
Jerry Del Core, CEO of parent organization Catholic Cemetery and Funeral Services of the Diocese of Sacramento, says about 75 people attended in person and another 300 watched online. He said the organization wanted to “give them an avenue to really express some grief, to mourn the loss of their loved ones.”
Early in the pandemic people weren’t able to visit their dying loved ones in the hospital or gather in any way. Now restrictions are loosening and people can hold small gatherings, but it’s still a complicated situation, Del Core said.
“When we were limited to ten people at a service, how do you choose which ten people participate and which don’t? That makes it difficult.”
The Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead holiday begins this coming weekend. It’s usually a festive time where people celebrate lost loved ones by playing music, hanging flowers and displaying clothing or items that the deceased person cherished.
Castaneda, of La Familia Counseling Center, says he expects the holiday will bring up a lot of difficult emotions for people this year. But still, he says, organizations like his are trying to celebrate in a modified way, as a means of bringing the community together for support.
“We need to find a way to still, to honor our traditions in what we do, and to give people something to look forward to,” he said.
For Gallegos, who lost her uncle this year, she says her family is turning to religion to get through this difficult time.
“Our faith is always going to be there within the core culture, that’s one of the things that has kept us strong, and will continue to keep us strong, is our faith,” she said.
CapRadio gets support from the California Health Care Foundation.
Here are some Sacramento-area grieving and mental health resources for the Latino community:
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