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Some Latinx Communities In The Midwest Struggle To Follow Coronavirus Safety Measures


In the Midwest, some of the worst coronavirus outbreaks have occurred at meat or poultry processing plants, plants that are filled with Latinx workers. Helping them understand how to protect their families and community from COVID-19 is complicated, especially in rural areas. KBIA's Sebastian Martinez Valdivia reports.

SEBASTIAN MARTINEZ VALDIVIA, BYLINE: Francisco Bonilla is the pastor at Casa de Sanidad in Carthage, Mo. He also runs a low-power radio station out of his church. Bonilla mainly broadcasts sermons and religious music. These days, he's also focused on COVID-19, which has hit a lot of Latinx workers at the Butterball poultry processing plant.

FRANCISCO BONILLA: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTINEZ VALDIVIA: Bonilla tells his listeners about the local case count and explains what symptoms to watch out for. He's broadcast interviews with a local nurse and investigators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Bonilla and some fellow pastors have closed their churches because of the pandemic, but there are some 30 churches serving the town's Latinx community. And he says other pastors haven't acted as responsibly.

BONILLA: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTINEZ VALDIVIA: Bonilla says some of the church leaders think if they don't hold services it means they don't have faith, and they want to show God is in control. The Latinx immigrants who started moving here 20 years ago came to work at the Butterball plant. It now employs some 800 people, more than half of them Latinx. The plant is just a half-mile walk down Main Street from the town square. Small shops line the stretch, most with Spanish-language flyers in the windows. They advertise everything from money transfer services to self-help books and regional ingredients from Guatemala and El Salvador.

JUAN TOPETE: My parents were tired of a big city life, so they moved out here.

MARTINEZ VALDIVIA: That's Juan Topete. His parents worked for Butterball when they moved the family here from Los Angeles in the '90s. Topete also worked there when he was younger.

TOPETE: My family came from having nothing. When we moved here, we literally had nothing - whatever we had in our U-Haul, and that was it, to owning a restaurant and selling it later and, you know, being well-established in the community.

MARTINEZ VALDIVIA: It's a common story for immigrants, like Topete's parents, who are from Mexico. The plant offers them good-paying jobs without having to speak English.

TOPETE: When I first moved out here, if you were Hispanic, you knew each other. It was very tight, very, very small group, and it's expanded tremendously these last few years.

MARTINEZ VALDIVIA: Carthage is home to about 15,000 people, and these days, a third of them are Latinx. In 2016, Topete won a seat on the city council, the first Latino resident to do so. Now he's trying to help other residents like him. Latinx people have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in Carthage and across the U.S. Topete says many plant workers feel like they have to keep going to work even if they test positive. They're afraid of being laid off or their families need the money.

TOPETE: I do know people that have tested positive. I try to stay in contact by calling them, following up on them, make sure they're doing OK.

MARTINEZ VALDIVIA: A CDC team came to Carthage to investigate the outbreak. They believed the virus made its way into the Butterball plant, infecting workers and spreading through their families. In a statement, Butterball confirmed workers have tested positive, but declined to say how many.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTINEZ VALDIVIA: This PSA from the city tells Carthage residents that just because the governor has lifted the state's stay-at-home order doesn't mean the virus is gone. In a Mexican grocery store and restaurant called La Tiendita, owner Jose Alvarado posted a sign on the door asking for only one member of a family to enter at a time. And next to his industrial tortilla maker, there are Xs on the floor so customers can socially distance.

JOSE ALVARADO: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTINEZ VALDIVIA: He says he's trying to keep both his workers and customers safe. Topete fears other residents will blame the Latinx community for the virus. He says many assume it's only affecting workers at the plant, when in reality, it has spread throughout the town. And while there is room for improvement, Topete says the outreach is working. While out shopping recently, he saw more Latinx shoppers wearing masks than before and more in masks than white shoppers. For NPR News, I'm Sebastian Martinez Valdivia in Carthage, Mo.

SHAPIRO: And this story comes from NPR's partnership with KBIA and Kaiser Health News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sebastián Martínez Valdivia is a health reporter and documentary filmmaker who focuses on access to care in rural and immigrant communities. A native Spanish speaker and lifelong Missouri resident, Sebastián is interested in the often overlooked and under-covered world of immigrant life in the rural midwest. He has a bachelor's degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Missouri and a master's degree in documentary journalism at the same institution. Aside from public health, his other interests include conservation, climate change and ecology.