Immigrant Stories: Elizabeth Velasco
Special to the Post Independent
Intro: For the past seven years, Elizabeth Velasco has been providing medical translation for Spanish-speaking patients and their medical providers in Eagle, Pitkin and Garfield counties.
When the pandemic hit in March, Elizabeth helped establish Voces Unidas, a Latino-led advocacy organization serving Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin counties. Because of her experience in medical translation and her understanding of the medical community, Elizabeth became Voces Unidas’ first promotora.
Gallacher: Would you start by explaining what a promotora is and what the job entails?
Velasco: A promotora is not a new concept. It’s been around since the ’80s.
It’s a community navigator or outreach person. The name came from when promotoras were hired to educate people about diabetes. They were out in the community going door-to-door sharing information that was easy to understand and easy to digest in culturally relevant ways.
My job as a promotora is with Voces Unidas, a Latino-led advocacy organization that serves Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin counties. We have a three-pronged approach. First, we share information about the COVID virus and how to stay safe. Second, we help make people aware of the community resources and we show them how to access them. A lot of our clients have never needed any assistance and right now they’re struggling. Many of them are out of work or they have COVID symptoms and they need assistance.
The third part of our program is advocacy. We work hard to make sure that our clients civil rights are protected. If they qualify for a program, we make sure that they receive the help that they are entitled to.
Gallacher: What is the demographic breakdown of the COVID cases in Garfield County?
Velasco: The last time I checked we were 52% of the cases. We are only 30% of the population. (Editor’s note: the percentage has dropped to 42% of cases since this interview was conducted.)
Gallacher: What are the circumstances that create that imbalance?
Velasco: I don’t think it has to do with the color of our skin or where we come from, but I do feel our way of life just makes it easier for the spread. For example, people who have to carpool to go to work. Many of them have to carpool from Parachute or Rifle all the way to Aspen. That means they’re in the car for over an hour with as many as 10 other people. Many immigrant families live in multi-generational households where a lot of people come and go.
Gallacher: Close-knit communities are a good thing in normal times but the COVID virus has made that a challenge.
Velasco: Yes, and many of our Spanish speakers are essential workers who can’t work remotely. They have to be at their jobs in person, so that creates another risk.
Gallacher: Of the 52%, there are Latinos, what’s the demographic?
Velasco: They’re mostly from 20 to 40 years old.
Gallacher: So, the prime working age.
Gallacher: How long have you been working as a promotora?
Velasco: I volunteered with Voces Unidas in March, when COVID started. We were calling people one by one to make sure that they were connected to resources. We made over 200 calls as an organization.
Now, I am working part-time, helping develop work processes and build the program’s infrastructure. We’re working in Eagle, Pitkin and Garfield counties and networking with a lot of the local non-profits. They’ve been doing a good job for many years, so we’re just trying to fill in the gaps.
Gallacher: So, basically, you are working to create better networks between Anglo and Latino segments of our communities. What are some of the problems that Latinos are having? Can you share a story that illustrates some of the issues?
Velasco: When COVID started in March, we were dealing with people who were losing their jobs when businesses were shutting down. They needed food for their families and rent assistance. Now that the virus has grown, we are helping people determine if they have COVID, and get the test they need. A lot of doctors are using telehealth to consult with patients, but many of our clients don’t have good internet connection. Some don’t even have computers.
Most of the clinics are super accommodating; they’re doing Face Time appointments, they’re developing other creative ways of seeing people virtually which we appreciate, but then there’s also the cost of the appointment. The test is free now because of the state assistance, but we used to have to pay for the appointment, so that’s a barrier. Some testing centers do a drive- through, but what do you do if you don’t have a car?
Gallacher: So, many of these systems have been set up with some major assumptions. People have cars, people have a doctor, people have internet. Are leaders in the three counties realizing that there are some gaps?
Velasco: Yes, I know that other nonprofits in the three counties are working on their own promotoras models, because the model works. We know that people tend to trust you more when you speak to them in their native language, in a way that’s culturally relevant. They trust that we understand their situations.
Gallacher: You are trying to assure people that things are going to be better but often you’re working with clients whose circumstances are pretty bleak. How do you manage that emotionally?
Velasco: Well, it’s been really difficult for my mental health. I feel like there’s so much that needs to be done, but we have limited resources. For example, there was a dad who lost his job, he’s a single dad, and has two young teenagers. He’s staying with his brother and the brother can only give them a couch. So sometimes the dad has to sleep outside because he wants to give his kids some privacy. He was having trouble getting a COVID test so he could go back to work.
That breaks my heart. I wish everybody had a place to sleep, a place where they feel safe, a place where their kids are comfortable and I’m sure that must be super hard for the dad to not be able to work and provide for his kids.
Gallacher: You said that you are trying to reassure people and gain their trust but that must be hard given the level of fear that has been fostered toward immigrant communities.
Velasco: There’s a lot of distrust of the government because of things like ICE. People are afraid to talk to contact tracers or county officials. The officials are asking, “Do you have a Social Security number? Do you have this and that?” People are scared. They want to protect their families.
That is one of the strengths of the promotoras program. The promotoras are from their community, so there’s already trust. People know that we’re not from the government. They know we’re not going to share their immigration status. I know the counties have said that they’re not sharing that information but there’s still mistrust.
Gallacher: How has the pandemic affected the Latinas in our communities?
Velasco: In the Latinx community, women run the household. I feel like the moms are really working extra time. They’re the ones trying to set up virtual school for their kids, they’re trying to set up their house to keep everybody safe and keep everybody fed.
Gallacher: Well, it was true of you. When you were a child, your dad had to leave and find work in the United States, right? How did your mom manage?
Velasco: My mom had a lot of help from my grandma. My grandma used to watch us and take us to school and stay with us because my mom was working overnight as a nurse. So, I’ve always been around very strong women that just make it happen. They do what they need to, to keep the family going.
Gallacher: So, do you get to spend time with your mom?
Velasco: That’s been really hard. My mom came to visit with us for a couple months but then she went back to Mexico. I had a trip planned to Mexico to see my grandma. That’s been hard for me because I am really close with her.
Gallacher: Does your grandma do Zoom?
Velasco: We tried FaceTime, but the internet signal hasn’t been great over there. So, I haven’t been able to do much on the computer.
Gallacher: The pandemic has really messed with social interaction in a way that makes us feel less human. That has been really difficult. What are your hopes for the new year?
Velasco: I’m really hopeful that the vaccine will be available and that we can get enough good information that will enable people to trust the vaccine. Latinos are super social. We really enjoy going to dances and going out to concerts. People are missing that release of having a day off and grilling with friends.
In the coming year, I really hope that we have time to reflect on the things that we’ve learned about the barriers in our communities, barriers that have always been there but maybe weren’t as evident before as they are now. We’re always going to have emergencies, whether it’s a fire or a flood or another health crisis. My hope is that we can all work together so that we are better prepared for next time.
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