Editor’s Note: Ed Morales is a journalist and lecturer at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. He’s the author of the book “Fantasy Island: Colonialism, Exploitation and the Betrayal of Puerto Rico.” Follow him on Twitter @SpanglishKid. The views expressed are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Two months into the coronavirus crisis, with many Americans clamoring for a return to business as usual, Latinos are still mourning the terrible toll on their communities. An Ecuadorean bus driver in the Bronx died at 66, months before retirement; an undocumented Guatemalan in Oregon lost his life; and a Salvadoran worker was the first Latino to die at a meatpacking plant in Smithfield, South Dakota. All three tell the disparate story of how the coronavirus has profoundly impacted Latinos in the United States.
But these tragedies – as well as the broad-based calamities caused by pay cuts, job loss and food insecurity – show that while their experiences and citizenship status vary greatly, Latinos are bearing a large, disproportionate share of the crisis.
According to recent data provided by the city of New York, Latinos had the second-highest rate of coronavirus deaths, with 259.2 per 100,000, behind African Americans, who are averaging 265. Nationwide, the Pew Research Center reports that Latinos are among the hardest hit due to the coronavirus: 40% of Latinos, compared to 27% of all Americans, had to take a pay cut, and 29% lost their jobs, as opposed to 20% of the overall population. Another recent analysis by the Latino advocacy group Mijente found that over 24% of Latinos work in low-wage jobs, a stat that doesn’t even begin to measure the even lower wages and poorer working conditions of undocumented workers.
The varied impact of the disease on Latinos gives us an opportunity to talk about the unwieldiness of the label itself, which was born out of a need for greater visibility and political power for those of Latin American descent in the US. Since the 1960s and 1970s, terms like “Hispanic” and “Latino” have been used almost interchangeably though the former is often seen as reflecting conservative politics and the latter liberal, while “Latinx,” a futurist label aims to be inclusive of non-binary LGBTQ folks is slowly growing in popularity. Latinos come from 21 different countries (including Puerto Rico, an unincorporated territory of the US since 1898), descend from several different “races,” and do not have a uniform social class status. A “Latino” might be an African-identified Garifuna from Honduras living in Florida, a third-generation light-skinned Puerto Rican living in New York, or a Mixtec-speaking Mexican immigrant living in California – and that’s not even scratching the surface of our diversity.
But what the coronavirus’ effect reveals is that the Latino demographic is largely made up of people of color working in essential and service jobs on the front lines of transit systems, hospitals, the hotel industry, and the meatpacking and agricultural industries, with a longstanding lack of access to adequate health care.
Someone like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez knows how diverse yet commonly afflicted Latinos can be. Her district stitches together parts of the Bronx, which is home to Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, whose migration to the city peaked in the 1960s and 1980s respectively; and Queens, whose Elmhurst neighborhood is dominated by more recent South American and Mexican immigrants.
“This crisis is not really creating new problems,” Ocasio-Cortez told a New York Times interviewer earlier this month. “It’s pouring gasoline on our existing ones.”
And those problems, particularly in terms of health crises, go back further than many of us realize. Echoing the treatment of African Americans, who suffered immensely from tuberculosis outbreaks, and even blamed for the inaccurately named “Spanish flu”, Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans were often scapegoated as carriers of disease. In 1917, many were sprayed with pesticides at disinfection facilities at the El Paso-Juárez border.
Latinos who have been in the US for several generations share some of the same problems that can be traced to the structural inequalities that are faced by African Americans. In fact, many Latinos in large cities share a cultural affinity with blacks and identify as African-descended. Long-term marginalization reinforced by lack of access to a good education, permanent well-paying jobs, wealth creation through homeownership and, of course, preventive health care exposes them to pre-existing conditions like diabetes, respiratory or heart disease that can prove lethal when contracting the coronavirus. In 2019, the CDC reported that Latinos were 1.7 times more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than whites, and in 2017 reported that Latinos were twice as likely to visit an emergency room because of asthma than whites.
The majority of Latinos in the US – about 62% – are of Mexican descent and live in the West. Most of them have a life experience that ranges from upward mobility and English-language dominance to inner city marginalization, and finally, the more recent experiences of immigrants, many undocumented, working in dangerous conditions and underpaid. Farmworkers, already exposed to the risk of pesticides, have taken to wearing masks and social distancing, while those working in the meat-packing industries or in the food and service industries are constantly exposed.
Elmhurst and Corona Queens, part of Ocasio-Cortez’s district, had its hospital quickly overwhelmed as an early epicenter of the coronavirus, and its residents live in ceaseless anxiety. Undocumented immigrants in the community, as in many urban areas across the country, don’t want to risk getting emergency care for fear of exposing their status. Roosevelt Avenue, the main drag of Elmhurst and neighboring Jackson Heights, with its chain of restaurants, inexpensive stores and nightlife haunts turned into a dark, lonely promenade of sorrow, is likely to find it harder to recover than more affluent parts of the city.
The pandemic has also greatly impacted Latinos who are caught up in the criminal justice system – and largely overrepresented through mass incarceration in a way parallel to African Americans. While some jurisdictions are releasing older and infirm prisoners, the incarcerated are exposed to Covid-19 through unsanitary conditions and close quarters with inmates. Undocumented immigrants currently held in immigration detention centers encounter similar, if not worse conditions. Almost a thousand of them have tested positive for the virus while in ICE custody.
A recent report from New York City asserted that 81% of social distancing summons handed out by the police went to blacks and Latinos, while New Yorkers in privileged neighborhoods flouted mask-wearing and distance rules in a local park.
As a freelance journalist and adjunct professor I have the privilege of working from home during the crisis, but, as the son of a former New York City transit worker I have a strong empathy for people on the front lines. I have counseled Latino undergraduates who have had to return to crowded homes with balky internet service and fight through the alienation of long-distance learning. Many of them have lost part-time jobs working in food service and retail store jobs and wonder if they can afford to stay in school.
Yet, every day in my working-class neighborhood in the Bronx, African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Mexicans practice social distancing, wear masks, and come to their windows to bang on pots and pans every night to celebrate front-line medical workers and first responders. They do this because not only do they have friends and relatives who have been hospitalized or even lost their lives, but because they’ve known for a long time that their lives are precarious, that their jobs and livelihood might be gone in a second, and that it takes an extra dose of care, concern and compassion to survive.