A woman in a mask takes food from a man whose back is to the camera
The Multicultural Institute in Berkeley offers free food weekly to day laborers and others in response to new needs that have arisen in the local Latinx community during the crisis. Photo: Daniela Gonzalez-Perez

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Daniela Gonzalez-Perez made regular trips to Hearst Avenue near the railroad tracks to check in with the day laborers who hung out there looking for work. She would bring them food and advice.

But the current crisis has taken away many of those laborers’ opportunities for work, threatening their means of survival, said Gonzales-Perez, who works on the Multicultural Institute’s day laborer program in Berkeley.

“Initially a lot of day laborers were very concerned when shelter-in-place was first ordered, asking us, ‘Should we go out to the street?'” Gonzalez-Perez said. The organization told them that if they absolutely had to, they should at least wear a mask and stay in their cars.

“We know it’s their livelihood,” Gonzalez-Perez said.

COVID-19 has thrust even more of the institute’s clientele —mostly monolingual Spanish-speaking immigrants — into precarious positions.

“A day laborer’s life has always been very uncertain. They don’t know when they’re going to be able to have work, when they’re going to be able to pay bills. Now everybody has been experiencing in one way or another that same hardship,” Gonzalez-Perez said.

The Multicultural Institute, which has started distributing free food to anyone who needs it, is part of a constellation of organizations and programs trying to better serve and reach the Latinx community in Berkeley during the crisis.

While Berkeley doesn’t release the demographics of coronavirus cases and deaths, Alameda County’s data dashboard shows that Latinxs represent by far the largest percentage of lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases of any racial or ethnic group. Latinxs make up around 40% of cases in the county, but only about 22% of the population overall. (Nineteen percent of cases are of unknown race, however). Regional and national data have repeatedly shown that both the Latinx and black populations are disproportionately affected by the disease in many areas, both in rates of infection and deaths.

Advocates say the disparities stem mainly from a lack of information provided to some groups and a consequent lack of access to health care. Monolingual Spanish speakers may miss out on important English-language health advisories, and undocumented immigrants aren’t eligible for federal stimulus funds to get them through the economic shutdown. (In response, California launched Disaster Relief Assistance for Immigrants, where individuals can receive $500 in assistance, though applications for the program only opened Monday.)

Many of the day laborers Gonzalez-Perez works with have been cut off from rental assistance programs during the pandemic because most require recipients to show their leases. Most of the laborers are recent arrivals to the United States, and didn’t know they were supposed to enter into formal rental agreements with landlords — or they’re just renting a room from another tenant, she said. Those laborers, along with essential workers, also run a much higher risk of exposure to the virus than higher-income residents who can work from home.

Another Berkeley-based organization considered COVID-19 its calling to spring back into action and connect the Latinx community with city services.

Image: City of Berkeley

The group, Latinos Unidos, has taken many different shapes since its launch in the early 1990s. There was the UC Berkeley, city and community coalition that worked to tackle educational inequity with ambitious projects like the 2020 Vision. There was the group that met at Mario’s La Fiesta, the old iconic Mexican restaurant right off Telegraph Avenue, strategizing about how to push city policymakers to better serve the Latinx community. There was the organization that joined with others to form United in Action, campaigning to get people of color on the Berkeley School Board.

They’ve taken on yet another new task during the pandemic.

“Here we are in version four or three of Latinos Unidos,” said co-founder Lupe Gallegos-Diaz, laughing.

This time “our job is to look into our community [and find out] what the needs are, and organize and advocate around them on a city-wide level,” said Héctor Malvido, another Latinos Unidos member.

City officials and staff were receptive to their effort, he said.

In April, Latinos Unidos invited Mayor Jesse Arreguín to a meeting with a small task force of organizations in Berkeley serving the Latinx community. That led to ongoing weekly meetings with Berkeley Fire Department Assistant Chief Keith May and other city staff. Gallegos-Diaz and Malvido are the liaisons between the groups.

“We know in Berkeley that our Latinx population is disproportionately affected by the virus,” said Tano Trachtenberg, a senior legislative aide in the mayor’s office. “From the elected official’s perspective, we are especially responsible to our most marginalized communities, and we are a sanctuary city.”

Advocates like Malvido and Gonzalez-Perez say the city has put out a handful of helpful Spanish-language resources already (including several printable posters and shareable graphics), but they said there’s plenty of room to expand translated information.

“A glaring example is there’s only one Spanish-speaking nurse in the public health department,” Malvido said.

Trachtenberg said more work is underway to increase translation, including hopefully during Arreguín’s weekly live town halls.

People sit in a circle in a colorful busy room. A woman stands in the middle
In December 2019, Latinos Unidos held a Community Convivo with local residents and Berkeley officials Jesse Arreguín and Beatriz Leyva-Cutler, which led to an ongoing relationship with the city. Photo: Courtesy Héctor Malvido

Trachtenberg said he knows it’s not just a matter of translation, but making sure the city’s staff includes “culturally connected folks who really understand through lived experience what the norms are and the culture and the particular sensitive in this moment.”

Those needs may be most pronounced during “contact tracing” efforts when staff systematically reach out to everyone who’s come in contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19. Those contact tracers need to be able to communicate clearly with the residents they reach and put them at ease when they ask potentially personal health questions.

City spokesman Matthai Chakko confirmed that one of Berkeley’s six public health nurses speaks Spanish, but said a volunteer nurse and the office support staffer do as well. Other city staff — like librarians — have been trained as contact tracers too.

“Another concern I’ve heard is there’s mindfulness around culturally relevant food being offered by food banks,” Trachtenberg said. (Some local food pantries already try to cater to different cultures.) The mayor’s office has also fielded requests for personal protective equipment from groups like the Multicultural Institue and concerns about how residents who don’t have bank accounts can access relief and safety-net funds, he said.

Before the state launched its new relief program, some neighboring cities started “UdocuFunds,” raising money through existing nonprofits to disperse to undocumented workers who’ve been laid off. Berkeley doesn’t have such a dedicated fund, so efforts like Latinos Unidos’ are meant to connect resources with the immigrants who need them. Gallegos-Diaz said her organization is trying to count and identify the undocumented population in Berkeley to better direct those resources, but that’s a challenging task. She’s the director of UC Berkeley’s Chicanx Latinx Student Development Office and works closely with undocumented students, so she’s started there.

Berkeley Unified also sent an announcement to families, in English and Spanish, about the state assistance Monday.

May, who heads the Emergency Operations Center’s community branch, said he’s gotten some requests for a public event opening the city’s testing facility specifically to Latinx residents.

“One of things that was talked about during a meeting — and we’re not there yet — was they wanted to know, is it possible to do an event,” he said. “Like a blood drive, but a testing drive for the undocumented or Hispanic or Latinx community.”

Currently, only symptomatic people can get tested for the coronavirus in Berkeley, though staff say they aspire to eventually have the capacity to test anyone.

Berkeley’s COVID-19 testing site is currently open to anyone with symptoms. Photo: Pete Rosos

In San Francisco, UCSF conducted a study concentrated in the Mission District, testing some 3,000 residents. Almost all the participants who tested positive were Latinx, whereas that population made up only 44% of all study subjects. Ninety percent of those who tested positive also said they were unable to work from home.

Latinos Unidos and the Multicultural Institute are not the only community organization the city’s been in contact with during the crisis, said May. The full list includes institutions like La Peña, the Ed Roberts Campus, McGee Avenue Baptist Church, Congregation Netivot Shalom, and other organizations that might have ins with specific or vulnerable populations.

“Not all community members are going to go to the city for help, but they will go to their organization of comfort,” May said.

Once the city connects with an organization, staff ask if the group’s familiar with the shelter-in-place order and whether they need fliers about social-distancing or hand sanitizer, May said.

“It’s really about getting the lines of communication open and figuring out what their needs are,” he said.

As is, it can feel like Latinx residents “need to go to 10 places to get navigated” when they come to the city needing health or social services, Gallegos-Diaz said.

That’s the larger goal of Latinos Unidos, beyond the weekly chats about immediate needs: establishing something lasting.

“Should something like this ever happen again, we hope there’s no need for Latinos Unidos, but already a systemic response that is culturally responsive and supportive,” Malvido said.

The coronavirus has not only inspired Latinos Unidos to connect with city service providers, but it’s also encouraged the group leaders to strengthen bonds with the people they represent. Everywhere, the new era of isolation and fear has prompted more people to get to know their neighbors, revisit old connections and strengthen their support systems. Gallegos-Diaz said she’s also helping revive United in Action, the diverse coalition that had some sway over Berkeley politics.

“Even within the Latinx community, we know people exist, but we don’t know each other,” she said.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...