In Growing Rural Latinx Communities, COVID-19 Outreach is Complicated | KBIA

In Growing Rural Latinx Communities, COVID-19 Outreach is Complicated

Jul 14, 2020

Francisco Bonilla is a pastor who runs a low-power radio station out of his church, Casa de Sanidad in Carthage, Missouri. On a hot summer day, he’s showing me around the studio.

Bonilla mainly uses the station to broadcast 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.

Bonilla says he’s been spreading information about the number of cases in the area, and about symptoms people should watch out for. He’s done interviews with a local nurse and  investigators from the CDC.

Bonilla and some fellow pastors have closed their churches amid the COVID-19 crisis. But there are some 30 churches serving the town’s Latinx community, and he says other pastors haven’t acted as responsibly.

He 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 Butterball plant is just a half-mile walk down main street from the town square. Spanish-language shop fronts along that stretch advertise everything from money transfer services to self-help books and regional ingredients from Guatemala and El Salvador.

Shops like Supermercado Coatepeque line the half-mile strip of Main St. that leads from the Carthage town square to the Butterball plant.
Credit Sebastian Martinez Valdivia / KBIA

Juan Topete is familiar with the plant: it’s where his parents worked when they moved the family here from Los Angeles in the ‘90s, and where Topete himself worked when he was younger.

"My family came from having 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," Topete said.

It’s a common story for immigrants — Topete’s parents are from Mexico — who can find good-paying jobs at the plant without having to speak English.

“When I first moved down here, if you were hispanic you knew each other," Topete explained. "It was a very tight group and it’s expanded tremendously these last few years.”

A third of the nearly 15,000 people in Carthage are Latinx, In 2016, Topete became the town’s first Latino city council member. Now, he’s trying to help  a group that has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 -- in Carthage and across the U-S.

“I do know people that have tested positive. I try to stay in contact by calling them, following up on them, making sure they’re doing ok,” Topete said. 

The CDC team investigating the outbreak in Carthage believes 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.

Topete says there’s pressure on those who test positive to keep going to work, for fear of being laid off or not being able to provide for their families. He says there’s still some ignorance about the disease, but the city is working on outreach.

One public service announcement from the police department tells Carthage residents that just because the governor has lifted the state’s stay-at-home order doesn’t mean the virus is gone. The department is helping to lead the town’s COVID-19 taskforce, and has coordinated with Topete on getting flyers posted for the Latinx community.

In La Tiendita, a Mexican grocery store and restaurant, owner Jose Alvarado is doing his part to help.

He posted a sign on the door asking for only one member of a family to enter at a time, And next to an industrial tortilla maker there are “x”s on the floor  so customers can social distance.

He says the measures are to keep both the staff and customers safe, because patrons who bring their kids risk exposing them to the virus.

Topete fears the town’s Latinx community could become a scapegoat for the virus. He says there’s an impression that 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 community is learning. He notes that on a recent trip to Wal Mart, he saw more Latinx shoppers wearing masks than their white counterparts.