Essential: How the Latinx Community Copes and Endures in a Pandemic

Héctor Tobar stands in his office with his arms crossed.
Photo credit: Steve Zylius / UCI

Why are Latinx communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19? How has the pandemic both heightened societal inequities and brought communities together? Watch Tyrus Miller, dean of the School of Humanities, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Héctor Tobar, associate professor of English and Chicano/Latino studies, discuss these questions in this episode of “COVID-19: The Humanities Respond.”

Tyrus Miller (0:08–0:28): Hi everyone. Thank you for tuning in to “COVID-19: The Humanities Respond.” I am Tyrus Miller, dean of the UCI School of Humanities, and I’m pleased to be joined by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and novelist and professor in our Literary Journalism Program, Héctor Tobar. Hello Héctor.

Héctor Tobar (0:28–0:30): Hello, thank you for having me, Dean Miller.

Miller (0:30–1:02): Thanks for joining us. I wanted to start asking kind of a big context picture. As a writer and as a professor in Latinx studies, you’ve written a lot about Latinx communities in the age of Trump for publications like The New Yorker and The New York Times among others. Let’s start there. How has the Trump presidency revealed or heightened the inequalities that face the Latinx communities?

Tobar (1:03–3:52): Well, it’s been a time of a real deep, sort of psychological shock in the community. I think especially the 2016 election itself was a moment that was the capstone to a generation of an anti-immigrant movement that started off on the fringes of American society and worked its way right into the pinnacles of power. And so I think to witness that was itself something that really hit hard at the hopes and dreams of the Latino community and so what it’s done is that it’s sort of pressed people further underground. I mean that was basically the central truth of the anti-immigrant movement was that it didn’t necessarily reduce immigration; what it did was it created a subclass. It created a permanent caste of people without full political and legal rights.

The undocumented, as many as 11 million people, if not more. And if you think about all the families that have an undocumented family member, we’re talking about maybe 30 or 40 million people who are really affected, impacted. The children of the undocumented, siblings and family members of the undocumented. We’re talking about tens of millions of people, who are living with this uncertainty and so it makes people less likely to fight for their rights, less likely to think of themselves as full citizens and I think that just has helped to further the inequality in American cities like Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, in my lifetime — I’m a native Angeleno — I’ve just seen the disparities of wealth and poverty increase tremendously. A lot of it has to do not just with immigration, but with the decline of American industry and the de-industrialization of the country, and lots of other changes in the economic history of the United States. But in Los Angeles, the working poor tend to be Latino people and many of those Latino people are undocumented. And so to see the slow eroding of the Los Angeles middle class, and to see it shrink and to see these greater increases in wealth and poverty, that to me is one of the hallmarks of the last four years but really, they’re just a more sort of concentrated and extreme form of what’s been happening in the Latino United States for at least a generation.

Miller (3:53–5:15): That kind of increasing vulnerability and isolation and also in a kind of literal sense, restriction of the ability of people to access services of various sorts clearly is something that has impacted those communities in the pandemic. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, but clearly it’s not impacting all people equally. In some of our other conversations in this series, we’ve spoken about disparities in health, housing, and work that are affecting African American, Native American and Latinx communities in really tragically exacerbated ways during this pandemic. We’ve also spoken about the racialization of COVID-19 with respect to Asians and Asian Americans and the incidents of racism and harassment that has been directed towards individuals and communities. Could you speak to us more about some of the ways in which we’re seeing Latinx communities facing disproportionate burdens in this particular situation in the pandemic, and also, I would add the housing and economic dimensions that have followed from that?

Tobar (5:16–8:40): Absolutely. Latino immigrants are especially vulnerable for the same reasons that working-class people and communities of color are more vulnerable and that’s because, for example, if you don’t have a stable job, you don’t have healthcare, you’re more likely to put off health decisions. You’re more likely to have this magical thinking, “Oh, maybe my fever will go away on its own.” On that level, we’re now seeing in fact higher rates of infection in the communities of people of color and especially Latino communities because people are putting off health decisions. People have also been especially vulnerable to this new recession that we’re having.

Many of my students in the last term had parents who lost jobs or who had businesses that shut down and so as young people, they felt obliged to step in and help contribute to the family income, and I know in Latino families, they tend to consider the income of all the family members. Everybody contributes and that’s why a lot of young Latino people, our brightest young Latino people end up not going to college because they have a sense that they might be depriving their family of income and so this tendency is heightened even more in a pandemic and so that’s been difficult to see. It’s been difficult to see that playing out in my community because I’ve seen it playing out.

Here, I live in a very middle class neighborhood of Los Angeles. Everyone here is pulling together. I live in Mount Washington, near Dodger Stadium and we’re all working from home, those of us who are middle-class professionals, but every day, seven, eight, nine in the morning, I hear weed whackers and I hear leaf blowers because the army of Latino immigrants that comes to work every day, they’re not taking time off. They’ve always been out there.

Throughout this entire pandemic, I have not stopped seeing the pickup trucks of the gardeners and the construction workers coming through here. Those who’ve been lucky enough to have jobs have not taken time off. They are not able to practice these kinds of safe social distancing measures that many other people are allowed to practice and finally in response to your question, we’ve seen recently the Trump administration, as we have this new spike in COVID cases, attempting to blame Mexico. Mexico and Latin America are having their surge now of COVID-19 cases. Brazil is obviously a very serious situation right now and now we’ve seen the Trump administration taking a page from their xenophobic playbook and saying, “We blamed the Chinese before. Well now you know, we tried that. Let’s try and blame Mexico for this.” It’s been a situation that has seen a lot of people subjected to this hatred and also just the underlying realities that we’ve been talking about.

Miller (8:40–9:34): Yeah, there really has been an attempt to characterize this whole pandemic situation as somehow coming from alien forces and not something that really has revealed all kinds of vulnerabilities and inequalities in our domestic set up and clearly, that’s really where the center of the problems with the pandemic have lied and as a distraction from that, there’s an attempt to look for some sort of external scapegoat and that discourse has already been conveniently deployed in all kinds of other areas by the Trump administration.

Tobar (9:34–9:53): Absolutely, absolutely. It’s the one thing that Donald Trump will always rely on that has never failed him, is when something goes wrong, blame somebody and find a new group to blame and so that is absolutely predictable.

Miller (9:54–10:34): Just as a kind of parenthetical, I was hearing some very good reporting and interviews with immigrant farm workers in Salinas and one of the ironic, only in the sense that there’s clearly a kind of situational irony in this, speaking with one of them and asking, “Do you have access to a doctor? Do you have a doctor here?” And his response was, “No, and the last time that I saw a doctor was in Mexico where there is a universal healthcare.”

Tobar (10:34–12:01): Right, exactly, exactly. That’s one of the defining things of our time, for all people. People of many different ethnic groups and for people of working-class especially origin is that we’re all just one crisis away from disaster. One personal crisis, a car accident, an illness, and that’s something that’s defined American life increasingly for a generation. And we were seeing this incredible economic boom in California but one that just benefited so few people. Housing is through the roof as you well know in Southern California and elsewhere.

One of my students wrote a beautiful piece for me this quarter about this family home that’s been in her family since the 1980s, an old craftsman in Pasadena and how the family is on the verge of losing it and affordable housing is such a scarce commodity in Southern California and something that has really kind of skewed our reality here. I wouldn’t be able to afford to live in the home that I currently live in and I earn a very good salary as an associate professor at the University of California. I think that the COVID-19 and this recession obviously are just heightening these ongoing crises in American society.

Miller (12:02–12:58): You’ve recently written an article. You mentioned that you come from Los Angeles and you recently wrote an article entitled “Letter from Los Angeles on a Generational Uprising” published in Lit Hub and one of the things that I found really remarkable about the article was how you bring together different timescales and ranging from the very immediate time of current events to longer-duration generational changes to an evocation of really long timescales, like archeological and geological and natural historical. You poetically evoke a kind of gradual re-population of Los Angeles by animals living in the area and so as an Angeleno, could you tell us a bit about how you’re experiencing and witnessing the pandemic in your home context?

Tobar (12:58–17:55): Well, on one level it’s been a really wonderful time of reflection and of our family drawing closer together, which is probably true for many American families. We don’t go out as much. We don’t go out at all actually. We’ve been having family meals together every night. My two adult sons are home from university. One finished an entire term here at home doing virtual classes, which again, many families have done. On one level, it’s been really wonderful for us to see our family and many other families pull together and the way people’s network of family members take care of each other because we’ve been hearing about other families pulling through in similar ways and every night, there’s this ritual at eight o’clock, there’s this ritual here where people go out and yell and hoot in support of the first line health workers and now it’s become a thing more than that. It’s more just an affirmation of community in our neighborhood, which has really been wonderful.

On the other hand, we’re also living in a time when death is sort of hovering around almost every aspect of our daily existence. You know, we go to the supermarket. Is this visit to the supermarket exposing me to a potential illness? Will I make my father sick or my father-in-law sick if I go visit him?

On the other hand, we’re also living in a time when death is sort of hovering around almost every aspect of our daily existence. You know, we go to the supermarket. Is this visit to the supermarket exposing me to a potential illness? Will I make my father sick or my father-in-law sick if I go visit him? They’re in their 70s and 80s, my father and my father-in-law. And so having that hovering above us and then seeing what happened in the last few weeks with George Floyd and we’re living in this bubble and suddenly in our television screens and on our phone screens, we hear of this nationwide uprising and this burning, right, of parts of American cities in the very first days of the protest. And that just really took me back when I saw those first images of people protesting in West Los Angeles and burning a few stores and looting tennis shoes stores and whatnot.

It took me back to 1992 because I lived through this in 1992 and wrote my first novel, The Tattooed Soldier, is set against the Los Angeles riots. And so that really transported me and in fact, I thought about it. It’s every 27 years or so that we have had these protests that, I mean, I think what happened in 2020 wasn’t nearly as bad as ’92 or ’65 obviously, but still for a moment to think that every 27 years, going back to the ’65 Watts riots, we have these moments when the city explodes and there has been this explosion of activism. In that same piece, I described coming upon this group of demonstrators, who took over a very busy Los Angeles intersection very peacefully but for a moment they subverted the conventional order of Los Angeles. They blocked traffic, which is, the ability to move freely is basically one of the essential rights of being an Angeleno, right? And so to see that, to see kind of this generational kind of uprising, this generational malaise, this explosion.

I’ve really sensed in the last few years that Southern California, because of the social inequalities we’ve been talking about, really has been on the verge of some sort of a social explosion, for lack of a better word, some sort of social movement or expression of anger outside of the normal channels, right, of political and social activity and cultural activity and that’s what happened.

Because I’ve really sensed in the last few years that Southern California, because of the social inequalities we’ve been talking about, really has been on the verge of some sort of a social explosion, for lack of a better word, some sort of social movement or expression of anger outside of the normal channels, right, of political and social activity and cultural activity and that’s what happened. That’s what is continuing to happen. Over the weekend in Hollywood, we had 30,000 people again marching. And so to me it just speaks to this continuum in California history of how we have as people have arrived, human beings have arrived and created these social structures that are based on inequalities and exploitation and we haven’t always figured it out, figured out how it all should work, how we all should live together and that is one of the things that this COVID-19 and the subsequent George Floyd protests have really taught me.

They’ve taught me that Los Angeles has not escaped history. Los Angeles is still very much living with the legacy of these multiple histories that converge here and with the inequalities caused by late capitalism in the United States.

Miller (17:56–18:39): Well I do think that you’re pointing to the way in which the pandemic has maybe been a context in which people are looking at various sorts of manifestations of injustice or inequality that have been thought of as, well, that’s a problem in that corner, and that’s a problem in that corner, but really, beginning to connect the dots and really look more systemically than they might have been willing under other circumstances. I don’t want to say there’s a bright spot to the pandemic, but it’s a critical framework in which these questions are being more systematically raised.

Tobar (18:40–20:52): Absolutely. I think that there’s something happened on a global level with our collective psyche during this pandemic. I mean think about it: the entire world, within a few weeks, well, the entire developed world for starters, was shut down for three months and we were all put in this position of just having to meditate essentially. Breaking with our normal patterns. And we all went into this collective meditation and in the middle of that, we see this video of a Black man being tortured to death, slowly tortured to death, and I just think it brought a lot of people into a spot, especially a lot of white people I mean, just to be frank. People who had thought of police violence and police abuse against people of color as something that was just part of the daily fabric. It’s an awful thing, but part of just the daily fabric of society. And what had happened with that video, and the fact that it happened while we were in this moment of worldwide reflection, is that it led to people saying, “Wait a second, this isn’t right, that’s not normal. That should never be normal.”

And that spread around the world. I was watching British football and German football with my — excuse me, British and German soccer — with my sons over the weekend and all the players were wearing Black Lives Matter shirts. They took a knee at the beginning of a game in Manchester in support of this notion of Black Lives Matter and so there has been demonstrations in Hong Kong and everywhere, small towns in California and Visalia, small towns in Ohio — places that probably haven’t had a civil rights demonstration ever in their entire history. One day there will be a scholar who will be able to sort of tap into this psycho-cultural moment, political moment that happened there because it is a social phenomenon and it was spontaneous to see it sort of spread around the globe.

Miller (20:53–21:03): Well I want to thank you so much, Héctor, for this great conversation and I’ll say to our audience, to those of you tuning in, thanks for watching. Thanks so much, Héctor.

Tobar (21:03): Thanks for having me, Dean Miller.

Related links:

The official account of the UCI School of Humanities: Ideas that Matter.

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