After a day picking cranberries at a California farm, Josefino Cervantes Alvarado sat down for dinner to a unique mix of voices and music filling the room.
“Greetings to everybody tuning in to Radio Indígena 94.1 FM,” said a voice coming from the radio’s speakers in Spanish. Moments later, he heard another voice speaking in Mixteco — one of several indigenous languages from southern Mexico.
“I used to feel ashamed of speaking Mixteco,” Cervantes Alvarado, 40, whose first language is Mixteco, said in Spanish. “Whenever I listen to (the radio), I feel proud of who I am and don’t want my children to forget that.”
When the Covid-19 pandemic first hit the United States, the hosts of Radio Indígena were among the first people who could explain Covid-19 to indigenous Mexican farmworkers in Ventura County, thanks to their ability to switch between Spanish, Mixteco and other indigenous languages. As the months passed, they took to debunking coronavirus misinformation.
The Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project (MICOP), a group that runs the radio station and helps indigenous families in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, estimates that about 20,000 people from southern Mexico live in the area. Most of them are farmworkers and some only speak their indigenous language.
A 2015-2016 national survey by the US Department of Labor indicates that 77% of farmworkers are more comfortable speaking Spanish, 21% English and 1% prefer an indigenous language. The workers who were interviewed were fluent in at least 10 different indigenous languages.
Radio Indígena was created in 2014 as an arm of MICOP to provide information about labor rights and health programs to indigenous Mexican farmworkers in their native languages. It started streaming shows online and has expanded to FM radio, iOS and Android apps and a call-in number.
Currently, the station broadcasts 40 hours of original shows in Spanish and the indigenous languages of Mixteco, Zapoteco and Purépecha. They focus on a variety of topics, including immigrant rights, domestic violence prevention and indigenous history. Genevieve Flores-Haro, associate director for MICOP, estimates that about 3,000 people listen to the station daily.
Bernardino Almazán, a producer who used to work picking cilantro, said one of the biggest challenges in the early months of the pandemic was explaining what Covid-19 was. The Mixteco language, he says, dates back at least 2,000 years and does not include modern medical terminology.
“We had to find other ways to talk about the virus, give examples of similar illnesses, explain the symptoms,” Almazán said.
The station has since then produced a series of Covid-19 public service announcements about health protocols, school closures, price gauging and mental health.
Almazán and his colleagues have found themselves debunking false information and rumors about the cost of Covid-19 tests and the contents of a coronavirus vaccine in development.
For example, they had to clarify that undocumented immigrants who seek medical attention due to Covid-19 wouldn’t be affected by the “public charge” rule, a federal provision that makes it more difficult for immigrants to obtain legal status if they use public benefits like food stamps and housing vouchers.
Another conspiracy theory that the hosts have addressed is whether Microsoft founder Bill Gates wanted to use a potential coronavirus vaccine to implant tracking devices in people. Gates addressed the rumors last July during a CNN global coronavirus town hall.
“We recommend that they don’t pay attention to gossip circulating in social media or to people who may not have accurate information,” Francisco Didier Ulloa, the station’s coordinator and Almazán’s co-host, said in Spanish. “Our duty is to report responsibly.”
Arcenio López, executive director of MICOP, said Radio Indígena has been crucial to informing indigenous communities in Ventura County about Covid-19.
In addition to running the radio station, MICOP connects to the community, largely through door-to-door interactions. That works better than distributing pamphlets because many people who work at California farms come from rural communities in Mexico with widespread Spanish illiteracy.
At a Covid-19 testing location, López says, a woman couldn’t read her results because the document was only in English and Spanish. She had tested positive for the virus, he said. The group has since created videos in multiple languages showing how to make a face mask, wash your hands properly and get tested for Covid-19.
“It would be ideal that everyone learns English but the reality is that there’s people that would never learn English and there’s people who have just arrived to this country,” López said. “All of them deserve to have vital information in their native language, it’s a basic human right.”
Farmworkers are at heightened risk of Covid-19, advocates say
Many of Radio Indígena’s listeners are Latinos and farmworkers, two groups that have been disproportionately impacted by coronavirus outbreaks in multiple states.
The number of Covid-19 cases among Black and Hispanic children and across all ages is higher than other groups. Black and Hispanic people infected with the virus also died at disproportionately higher rates over the summer.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that farmworkers face a particular risk of infection from being in close contact with one another in fields, in shared housing or transport, and because of limited access to clean water for hygiene.
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order in April that mandates two weeks of paid sick leave for farmworkers or food sector workers subject to a quarantine or isolation order or medical directive. Newsom also allocated $100 million to subsidize child-care costs for essential workers.
In Ventura County, the state’s Central Coast county of about 850,000 people, Latinos make nearly 45% of the population. As of November 25, there have been 18,394 people infected with Covid-19 there and nearly 54% were Latinos, according to data from county health officials. It’s unclear how many people are of indigenous Mexican heritage.
There have been 496 farmworkers who tested positive for the virus, the county said.
Earlier this year, the county’s agricultural commission distributed about 1 million face masks to farming sites after a housing facility for farmworkers in Oxnard saw a large Covid-19 outbreak, CNN affiliate KEYT reported.
López, MICOP’s executive director, said farmworkers have experienced a dramatic loss of work during the pandemic. Those who have jobs struggle with lack of access to handwashing facilities and have to work in close proximity with a large number of people. Many who are employed, he says, feel like they don’t have a choice.
Some would sleep in cars to avoid exposing their families, López says, and others would be afraid to tell their employers they were sick with Covid-19 because they didn’t want to lose their jobs.
“If you talk to a farmworker, many would tell you they are just grateful that they have a job because they live paycheck to paycheck,” López said.
In the past two weeks, advocacy groups have been calling for a committee to develop guidelines for the prioritization and allocation of a Covid-19 vaccine to prioritize farmworkers.
“Farm workers must be prioritized and also have access to factual, scientific information about vaccines in the languages and indigenous dialects they speak,” said Diana Tellefson Torres, executive director of United Farm Workers Foundation, in a statement.