Health Challenges Faced by Midwestern Latino Communities: Lessons Learned from my Hunt Fellowship.

Published on
July 5, 2012

At Hoy we have a motto that we like to shoot for the moon and see how far we get.

Our Dennis A. Hunt Fellowship proposal was conceived and written in that spirit.  We set out to write a trio of stories that all dealt with health issues faced by communities in the Midwest that had seen an increase in their Latino populations in the past decade.  Our proposal said we would write stories about the degree to which federal agencies did or did not protect workers and their families in these areas, would look at access to health insurance in a couple of Chicago neighborhoods that had high numbers of Latino residents working full time, and would delve into the issue of trauma and resilience resulting from migrants’ journeys north.

For the enforcement piece our objective was to build a comprehensive dataset of OSHA and EPA violators that we would combine with census, jobs and environmental databases and food recalls.  Our intention was to use what we built not only to create a new and unprecedented resource that we would share with our readers for their own searches, but also to identify companies that we would investigate in depth.  The insurance piece drew on a national analysis we had done of data from the U.S. Census Bureau, and the trauma and resilience piece would be based in part on information and resources I had gained access to through my membership and participation in the Dart Center Ochberg Fellowship and the Dart Society.

We also sought to publish blog posts, videos, maps, court documents and others throughout the project, rather than wait until the end, and to forge collaborative relationships with other news publications.

Finally, we wanted to look at these issues from a community-wide, rather than individual, perspective.

Our project did not turn our precisely as we had planned.

We did indeed acquire the data mentioned above from OSHA and the EPA, and did blend this data with other data sources to which we had gained access. However, despite spending a lot of time on this effort, our enforcement story did not come from this route.

Instead, we followed editor Fernando Diaz’s suggestion and looked into the enforcement history of Wright County Egg in Galt, Iowa.  In August 2010 the company was the subject of the largest egg recall in United States history.  We dug deeper and found that Jack DeCoster, the company owner, had a more than three-decade long history of enforcement violations, a substantial portion of which involved his conscious policy of hiring undocumented Mexican workers for their work ethic and vulnerability.  In addition to finding a staggering lack of communication between federal agencies, we also we were able to raise the question if these workers were the proverbial  “canary in the coal mine.” The implication was that more attention to undocumented workers’ conditions and safety could perhaps have averted the later consumer disaster and recall. 

We also used the occasion of a seeming enforcement success, the closure of a notoriously filthy and dangerous migrant worker camp in Rantoul, Illinois due to a collective effort from largely local enforcement agencies, advocates, service providers and media.  Our reporting there revealed that while the closure of Cherry Orchard was indeed an accomplishment and even a model for other communities, it did very little to change in any fundamental way the experience of those migrant workers.

The insurance story was a bit more straightforward.

Here we learned and wrote about the many creative ways full-time workers use to meet their health care needs and other pressing financial responsibilities like the rent and food.  For example, we met a woman who had to choose one night between eating and buying medicine for a sick child.

She bought the medicine.

For the trauma and resilience story, we traveled to Beardstown, Illinois, which in 2007 was the site of a massive immigration raid at the Cargill plant.  We thought Beardstown made sense because the raid was a universally shared and searing event that still was very much alive in the hearts and heads of the town’s Latino community.  From that story we connected with Julio Flores, an El Salvadoran community activist who had to flee his country, but who had worked diligently in the town for 15 years to develop its sense of strength through cultural celebrations.  This story gave us new insight into communal trauma and the ways in which one can heal from it.

We did indeed publish as we went in Hoy, the Huffington Post and my own blog.  We published mostly in Spanish, but had seven posts in English, too.  Althoguh we reached out to a number of possible collaborators.  We did not succeed in getting other outlets to use the data we provided to them as the basis for their stories.  But the project did help us forge a deeper relationship with Citizen-Access, a non-profit outfit at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, with whom we are doing a project that will build on this reporting.  It also gave us the material necessary to  and give us the material to connect with ProPublica about working with them.

We also used Document Cloud for the first time to annotate the story about Wright County Egg.

Finally, we published online line stories in the week before we came out with an eight-page print supplement that had the four major stories delineated above as well as profiles of people we met through the course of our reporting whose experiences resonated with the theme and content of the story with which it was paired.

We did not reach the moon and are still hearing from the community members about the work, but we did do a number of things we had never done before.

We did gain valuable information about the experiences of Latino individuals and communities in the Midwest.

And we were able to paint a collective portrait of a richly diverse community many of whose members are struggling within significant constraints both to live a dignified life and to meet their families’ often pressing health care needs.

We will continue to explore these critical issues and are grateful for the opportunity granted to use through the fellowship and our participation in the ReportingonHealth community.

Tips for Other Reporters:

  1. Sharpen the point, but be open to the twists and turns in the road.
  2. Comb data and don’t get lost in the “rabbit hole” of data analysis.  Try to remember the bigger picture.
  3. Link individuals’ stories to policy and, if possible, to evidence that warnings have been given about the issue at hand.
  4. Think of the stories on their own and as part of a greater whole.
  5. Don’t forget the people.  They are who it’s about and they are who the readers want to learn from in the project.
  6. Don’t be afraid of reaching far, and remember to keep your feet on the ground.