Vaccine Voices: ‘We aren’t just open to migrants, we are open to everyone.’

Alex Llumiquinga Pérez and Oscar Hernandez entertain folks who turned out at the Lincoln City Cultural Center for vaccines with music from the Andes.

Late one summer night, Alex Llumiquinga Pérez and his crew of volunteer vaccinators were about to shut down the Newport clinic. It was nearly 9 p.m. and they’d been at it since early afternoon.  

Then Pérez’s cell rang. It was a van driver with a half dozen Guatemalan migrant workers headed for the clinic from Yachats – about 25 miles away. ‘Would they wait?’ They would. Forty-five minutes later, punctuated by several worried phone calls from the driver, the migrants climbed from the van and happily received their vaccinations. They were just a handful of the 500 Guatemalan migrants Pérez estimates live in Lincoln County. 

That clinic and others are just one part of a community program dubbed Juntos en Colaboracion (Working together) designed to reach the Latinx community. It is supported by OSU Extension Family and Community Health Program, Olalla Center, Lincoln County Health and Human Services and Lincoln County Emergency Management, and it has already far exceeded its original intent to provide COVID-19 information and vaccines. 

Juntos en Colaboracoin evolved after a COVID-19 outbreak at a Newport seafood plant, where many migrants work, left the Latinx community scrambling to find both information and testing. The incident highlighted  a general lack of access for the Latinx community, and it prompted a phone call from a Newport city councilor to Dusti Linnell, assistant professor of practice at OSU Extension Family and Community Health program. 

Dancers perform at the Lincoln County Fairgrounds commons as part of the La Fiesta Latina event which featured a vaccination clinic and celebration with food and music.

 “She came to me with stories about the lack of access to information, the lack of access to testing, to just getting on the phone with someone and talk,” said Linnell.  “There is a large group of Guatemalans in our community who weren’t getting supported because they spoke a different language.” Even within Lincoln County’s Guatemalan population, over 30 Mayan languages are spoken. They migrate for work, predominantly in agriculture, and go where the seasons take them. 

Linnell and others who volunteered at mass vaccination sites had noticed there were no Spanish speakers coming to the sites. Afterward, the group asked themselves, ‘Can we bring it to the people instead of asking them to come to us?’ 

They could, and did, hosting popular vaccination clinics at Mexican grocery stores in Newport and Lincoln City, the Lincoln City Cultural Center and a local restaurant that had experienced an outbreak and asked for help. One recent clinic saw 115 people line up for vaccinations. 

“One of the main reasons people come to our clinics is they feel comfortable,” said Pérez, Olalla Center Outreach Program Manager. “We offer tacos, drinks, music. They bring their kids. We always try to make it fun. It doesn’t feel like a clinic, more like a gathering, an event. We aren’t just open to migrants; we are open to everyone. We don’t want to separate the population; we want to unify and have a strong community.” 

The outreach didn’t end with the clinics. It grew into a multi-faceted effort to address other issues faced by migrant workers. One of the most damaging was the sense of isolation and lack of connection to other community members. Because of long hours and limited transportation, workers were unable to eat together, enjoy music and share their native art. “There are people who are weavers who make textiles and dream of having space where people can engage in that and learn about Guatemalans weaving,” said Linnell. 

And that dream is happening. Thanks largely to Pérez and a “close-knit team of bilingual, bicultural staff,” a new kind of community center called Arcoíris Cultural was born. “The name is inspired by the rainbow of many diverse cultures within Lincoln County,” Pérez said. “This pilot project aims to create a cultural center focused on celebrating and supporting underserved Latina/o/x, Guatemalan, and Indigenous populations of Lincoln County.”  

After receiving their vaccinations, these two gentlemen volunteered for a photo for the Olalla Center’s Facebook page to encourage others come in for their vaccine.

Arcoíris Cultural, which was funded by a by a $100, 0000 donation from InterCommunity Health Network – Coordinated Care Organization’s Deliver Transformation Committee (IHN-CCO), aims to foster wellness through arts, culture, and community building with programs expected to include music and dance performances, art exhibits and art classes, traditional cooking classes and artisan markets. Staff will also be on hand to assist with health care access, Oregon Health Plan applications and language accessibility and development.

“Arcoíris Cultural will connect to vibrant communities that represent nearly a quarter of Lincoln County’s population,” says Pérez, “while uniting our community as a whole.” 

From the day the city councilor reached out to Dusti Linnell, to the formation of Juntos en Colobracion and the launching of Arcoíris Cultural, the chain of events serves a universal purpose. “There are many reasons why someone might leave their home and embark on a journey to another country, all of them complex and unique,” said Pérez. “Whether the catalyst is hardship or hope, peril or promise, violence or vision, each experience holds its own range of emotions. Every journey, and the person or family who undertakes it, carries a story. Those stories and experiences should be heard, rather than lost.