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A nonprofit leader turns to journalism to highlight COVID myths imperiling Indigenous workers in California

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

A nonprofit leader turns to journalism to highlight COVID myths imperiling Indigenous workers in California

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Farmworkers labor in a strawberry field amid near Ventura, California.
Farmworkers labor in a strawberry field amid near Ventura, California.
(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As a member of the Mixteco Indigenous migrant community in California, I’m deeply interested in telling stories of the devastating impact of COVID-19 in the lives of Indigenous people in Ventura County. 

During COVID-19, I started hearing stories of farmworkers lacking basic protective equipment such as masks, and the difficulties of navigating the health system without proper interpretative services in Indigenous languages. It made it hard to understand the basic protections public health officials were recommending during COVID. Families were losing their relatives, and misinformation ran rampant.

I knew that embarking on a journalism project would be a completely new experience. I am not a journalist by training, which by itself was my first challenge. I am the executive director of the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project (MICOP), a nonprofit that supports, organizes and empowers the Indigenous migrant communities in California Central Coast. While working on my first op-ed on the impact of COVID myths on Indigenous farmworkers, I noticed the scarcity of recent facts and data specific to Indigenous migrant communities in California. My intent with the piece in the Los Angeles Times was to reach a broader audience that probably didn’t know anything about the challenges and struggles of Indigenous migrant farmworkers. Providing facts was important for me so the stories could be taken seriously.

Although it can be difficult to find research on Indigenous farmworkers and COVID-19 impacts, I did my best to focus on research I knew was done on these particular communities. The Indigenous Farmworker Study, authored by Rick Mines, is one of the few studies extant that I am aware of, so I used some of this data to support my reporting for my subsequent articles, supported by the Center for Health Journalism’s California Fellowship. My main goal was to make sure I amplified the stories shared by farmworkers in their own words, relaying their perspectives regarding misinformation during the pandemic. It was crucial to tell the stories not from the perspective of victimization but rather to explain how Indigenous community leaders were protecting their communities and the broader need for systemic change. Other helpful data sources were the COVID-19 Farmworker Study and the Pew Research Center

In interviews with farmworkers, I heard that language barriers seem to be one of the main challenges to accessing basic information and resources during COVID-19. One of the stories that resonated for me was that of Eulalia Natividad Mendoza. Getting Mrs. Mendoza to talk to me was a process of building trust; for her, it was reassuring that her story will be shared with respect and in her own words. I tried my best to honor her wishes. 

Holding conversations with farmworkers like Mrs. Mendoza confirmed for me that providing information in the language that people speak was one of the most effective ways to stop disinformation. There is little understanding from health care providers and other government agencies about the complexity of each of the Indigenous languages. My organization’s Indigenous language and interpretation services program has identified more than 20 different Indigenous communities in Ventura County, including Mixteco, Zapoteco, Purepecha, Triqui, Nahuatl, Huave, Otomi, Maya, among others. Each of these communities speaks their own language. In the case of the Mixtec community, there are about 25 different communities, which means about 25 different Mixteco variants or dialects.

It was not surprising to read about the similar problems faced by Indigenous migrant communities in other areas of California. The article “COVID misinformation plagues California’s Indigenous Speaker” highlights the language barrier challenges, and the work of other Indigenous-led organizations such as the Centro Binacional para el Desarrollo Indígena Oaxaqueño (CBDIO) based in Fresno. There are also other Indigenous-led organizations in California such as The Movimiento Cultural de la Union Indigena (MCUI) in Sonoma County, Comunidades Indigenas en Liderazgo (CIELO) in Los Angeles, and the Mixteco Indigena Community Organizing Project (MICOP) on the Central Coast, which I lead. These organizations can serve as great resources for health providers and journalists, since they provide cultural competency training (for example, learning about proper terms to refer to a specified Indigenous community), and for help in understanding different Indigenous communities' languages.

COVID-19 was new for everyone. Our people lacked proper health access and they were dying. I got out of my comfort zone. As community leader, I felt a sense of responsibility to try different methods to make our voices be heard. The process was not easy — creating a piece with the purpose of raising awareness of the system of injustice was always my intention. At one point, I was on the verge of  giving up because I couldn’t find a media outlet to publish my work, but the team at the Center for Health Journalism was instrumental in helping get these stories out. Although it took so much time to get all the pieces together, writing these op-eds was important to build on other reporting and advance the goals of protecting and building healthy communities.

There is a great need for more Indigenous journalists. Elsa Mejia is probably the only Indigenous Mexican journalist in California that I know about. As Indigenous people, we know that the value of respect and accountability is crucial in the journalism world. When we ask our people to share their stories, we are asking them to be vulnerable, and as a sign of respect we must come back to show them that sharing their stories made an impact. Mrs. Mendoza waited for me to come back and share the final piece; I told her that her story is the story of many of our people and the world should hear it. She smiled.

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