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Roaring Fork Valley’s Latino community faces coronavirus challenges

A member of a housekeeping staff cleans a studio apartment at Aspen Square Condominium Hotel.
Anna Stonehouse / The Aspen Times file

The uncertainty surrounding the new coronavirus is nerve-racking for everyone, but it’s magnified for “M,” a 62-year-old resident of El Jebel.

M is an undocumented immigrant and longtime local resident who is no longer able to work as a housekeeper because of back pain. She depends on help from her adult children, and particularly a daughter, to pay her rent and cover her other bills.

M, who didn’t want her name disclosed because of her legal status, is in the high-risk category for COVID-19 because of her age and diabetes. But dodging the virus isn’t her top concern.

“If they lose their jobs, I don’t know what I’ll do,” she said of her children. “If they don’t have jobs, I don’t have money to pay my rent and bills.”

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“There’s always a significant portion of our immigrant population that is so risk-adverse that they won’t apply, even if they qualify.” — immigration attorney Jennifer Smith

Her daughter usually works full-time in housekeeping. Last week, she worked only three days after Colorado Gov. Jared Polis issued a statewide stay-at-home order. Pitkin County had previously passed its own version of a stricter health order. Despite the lack of work, her daughter took M to the grocery store to stock up.

M doubts that she qualifies for any economic aid because of her status. So, it’s wait-and-see on how to pay her bills.

Meanwhile, she’s polishing her English skills. She hopes she can return to work eventually, possibly in an office, she said.

The Latino community in the Roaring Fork Valley has been hit particularly hard by the economic shutdown. Latino workers dominate in the restaurant, construction and lodging industries and, in many cases, their manual jobs cannot be performed at home.

“We’ve had lots of calls from people who have been laid off, not to mention folks who are undocumented,” said Mateo Lozano, mountain regional organizer for the Denver-based Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. “The folks who are undocumented are in an even worse predicament. Many of them are unaware that there are workers’ comp rights that they can take advantage of.”

The coalition has focused over the past two weeks on getting information to immigration hubs and nonprofit organizations that regularly work with Latinos to share information about what aid is available and how to apply for it.

It’s a complicated topic, Lozano said. An immigrant who has legal residency but is working to attain citizenship cannot become what the federal government classifies as a public charge — someone collecting welfare benefits.

That concern discourages some people who are sick, possibly with the coronavirus, from seeking medical care or unemployment compensation.

“Totally, 100 percent,” Lozano said. “They’re afraid of being a public charge.”

With state and local aid already being offered to laid-off workers and now a federal stimulus package, there is aid available that doesn’t qualify someone as a public charge.

“A lot of people don’t know you can take advantage of unemployment benefits even if they are undocumented,” Lozano said.

Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition is trying to help people wade through the regulations and answer their questions, he said. Information can be found at http://coloradoimmigrant.org.

Glenwood Springs immigration attorney Jennifer Smith has witnessed how the chaotic developments this month have created a lot of uncertainty. Like Lozano, she is aware of people who fear seeking medical treatment and applying for unemployment compensation.

“There’s always a significant portion of our immigrant population that is so risk-adverse that they won’t apply, even if they qualify,” Smith said. “The worry is it’s going to be used against them.”

She said her law firm has experienced an increase in telephone calls from clients trying to figure out if they qualify for aid and how to get it.

“No one is really interested in their immigration case right now,” she said.

In the bigger picture of trying to figure out the coronavirus crisis and the economic fallout, Entravision Communications and its Spanish-language radio station in the Roaring Fork Valley, Radio Tricolor Aspen, is filling the void.

Vice president Samuel Bernal-Urbina said the station has been flooded with questions from listeners — first about the symptoms of coronavirus and what a person should do if they feel they have it, and more recently how people can feed their families and recoup some of their lost income.

He said it is difficult to gauge how hard the coronavirus has hit the valley’s Latino community. There have been numerous reports of people with symptoms.

“I know there have been cases but there isn’t any data,” he said.

The radio station has been focused lately on sifting through the state, local and federal aid programs and providing answers.

“It gets a little more complicated with our immigrant community,” he said.

One thing that has become clear, he said, is the Roaring Fork Valley is a caring community for people, regardless of their legal status. Aid programs abound. On the other hand, people are scared about how they will continue to provide for their families if stay-at-home orders persist for an extended time — a concern shared by everyone.

Bernal and others created a Facebook public group called Coronavirus Aspen 2 Parachute Community Help to answer questions and serve as a clearinghouse for providing help to people in need. Most people are posting in Spanish but all posts can be translated.

One person posted a map that showed the coronavirus cases in the U.S. as of March 9 and another with significantly more cases March 26.

“Terrifying. I’m scared,” posted one person.

Bernal posted a question Friday asking if anyone has tested positive for the coronavirus and if they would be willing to share their story on the radio news.

He said he was impressed by how people have used the forum to seek and provide help. One man recently got out of Garfield County Jail facing a world a whole lot different from when he went in, with stay-at-home orders and a lack of jobs. Several people offered to help get the man on his feet, first by paying for a hotel room, then by providing longer-term housing, according to Bernal.

Hazzell Chevez, who works as a woman, infant, child specialist and a family health coordinator for Eagle County Health and Environment, is among the people trying to provide accurate answers to questions on the Aspen 2 Parachute Facebook page.

“This community in the Roaring Fork Valley is very supportive and it’s not hard to get help when one needs it,” she said.

Many people are trying to find help to pay their rent, so information released by Eagle County government was shared on the page, she said. People also want to know where they can get food to feed their families.

“People are concerned about getting help because so many people are not working,” Chevez said.

Chevez, who lives in the midvalley, is among the people working from home these days. Among her duties is calling to check in on women with infants and small children at home to make sure they are eating well and maintaining their health. She said she inquires about their health to see if they are experiencing any symptoms of the coronavirus and she shares information on how to respond.

She also is balancing work with caring for her own 7-year-old son. She said she doesn’t have immediate family in the valley to help with child care.

“Sometimes it’s hard because he wants my attention,” she said. But overall, her son understands that she must work.

Her husband works as an assistant lab technician at a local hospital. He sleeps in a different bedroom at home as a precaution while coronavirus presents a threat.

Chevez said she is concerned that the virus could sweep through the Latino community because there are often so many people sharing residences.

Eagle County has “borrowed” a content marketing coordinator from an independent recreation staff in the Eagle Valley to help the public health department in its LatinX outreach efforts. That marketing expert, Eddie Campos, and Faviola Alderete of the public health department have been working with the Spanish-language radio stations in the Eagle and Roaring Fork valleys to provide regular updates on COVID-19-related topics.

Campos also contributes content to the One Valley Voice bilingual Facebook page.

Angelo Fernandez, deputy county manager, also is involved in the county’s outreach efforts.

“Eagle County has been working with a group of about 60 Latino leaders in the Eagle River and Roaring Fork Valleys to help coordinate and distribute urgent and emergent information and relevant stories related to COVID-19,” Fernandez said in a statement.

On the Aspen 2 Parachute Facebook page, there is a mix of posts that express frustration, fear and a sense of community in battling the coronavirus. One woman posted a picture of herself and other women taking a break from cleaning at Aspen Valley Hospital.

“We are housekeeping from Aspen hospital. Always positive and bless with God’s help,” her post says.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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