One of the biggest challenges for the Latina/x/o community in Oregon at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic was the need for timely and accessible information in Spanish and Mesoamerican Indigenous languages. This was especially true for many women and men working in the fields and food processing plants in rural Oregon.
“For the first time, the state government considered farmworkers to be ‘essential workers’,” said Kristin Ostrom, executive director of Oregon Rural Action (ORA), a community-led organization working for the well-being of people and the environment in rural eastern Oregon. Being an essential worker means the work is necessary to ensure the continuation of society’s critical functions, such as food production. And because farmworkers can’t do their work remotely, they are more at risk of COVID-19 exposure.
“Early on, our leaders saw a need to provide information in Spanish to farmworkers and their families so they could protect themselves against COVID-19,” said Ostrom. “And they knew radio was key.”
On March 23, 2020, Oregon issued its first ‘stay at home’ order. A week later ORA launched a regional communications and outreach strategy featuring a new radio series, Acción Rural Hispana, broadcast on the Radio La Ley network. Since then, the live weekly show has aired every Sunday at 11 a.m., featuring interviews with public health experts and community leaders in Spanish and Mesoamerican Indigenous languages. By summer 2020, ORA partnered with Oregon Health Authority’s (OHA) Protecting Oregon Farmworkers program. OHA staff joined the radio show each week to offer the latest information on COVID-19 cases in Umatilla and Morrow counties and later expanded to offer information on other Spanish language radio stations across the state.
A large segment of the population of both Umatilla and Morrow counties are agricultural workers who start their workdays very early.
“They arrive home when it’s dark and don’t have time to watch television, read or go to hospitals to receive information,” said Rafael Romero, ORA community organizer and co-host Acción Rural Hispana. “That’s how we decided to bring the information to them through the radio.”
“There are many people who drive a tractor and are listening to the radio on their headphones, so it was a great idea and a model for other organizations and states,” Romero said.
Early on, the broadcast spent a lot of time debunking misinformation circulating about COVID-19.
“Acción Rural Hispana started before vaccines emerged, and many people called the radio program to say that they did not even want to take a COVID test because of fear of getting infected from the test itself,” Romero said. “And in the Latino community we often let ourselves go because of what we read on social media.”
After vaccines became available about a year into the pandemic, ORA faced another challenge with the people it served: vaccine hesitancy.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in fact, was addressing the same challenge across the country in states with high numbers of migrant farmworkers. The agency reached out to Oregon Health Authority, offering a toolkit that included a survey to better understand vaccine hesitancy or barriers to getting vaccinated in Oregon. But the survey was in English, and not culturally specific to the Latina/x/o community.
OHA then reached out to ORA, hoping to collaborate and tap into ORA’s deep community ties and resources. OHA staff translated the survey, and outreach teams made up of staff from ORA, OHA, CDC, college students and others met people where they live and work—at the laundromat, grocery store, church or where they pick up their paychecks. They talked with them directly, in their languages, including indigenous Mesoamerican languages in addition to Spanish.
ORA also collected video testimonials about why they got vaccinated. Many people said they decided to get the vaccine to protect themselves, the community and their family.
“This campaign is led by farmworkers who know their communities,” said Ostrom. “From the decision to broadly amplify information on radio, to where to offer testing and vaccines, the expertise of community members has informed the success of this campaign.”
ORA’s COVID-19 response campaign changed the way information and resources are offered to the community and workers in Umatilla and Morrow counties by “meeting people where they are and sharing information in ways they feel comfortable receiving it,” said Zaira Sánchez, director of community organizing at ORA. “It’s having person-to-person conversations, knocking every door, building a little trust with them so they feel comfortable asking questions and being encouraged to go to vaccine events.”
In addition to the weekly radio broadcasts, and sharing video stories on social media, ORA holds local vaccine events at taquerias and markets and large cultural events to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) and COVID-19 testing and vaccinations. At one event, 335 people showed up despite pouring rain. At another event, a snowstorm didn’t stop people from showing up, and 109 people were vaccinated. Most recently, ORA and other community-based organizations partnered to put on a Día de los Muertos event with over 400 participants, sponsored by the Hermiston High School Juntos club.
“Maybe the great success of ORA has been representation,” said Ana María Rodriguez, community organizer for ORA, originally from Mexico City.
“People feel comfortable asking us about COVID-19 vaccines because we are also part of the community,” Rodriguez said. “We also have experience working on the farms, and we know what people are going through because we are also migrants. Sharing personal experiences has been a great help as well.”
The efforts of ORA and other community-based organizations that are a part of OHA’s Protecting Oregon Farmworkers initiative have paid off.
As of Nov. 7, vaccination rates* for the Latina/o/x population in Morrow and Umatilla counties exceed that of the general population by larger margins than in any other Oregon counties.
For more information about ORA and Acción Rural Hispana you can visit Oregon Rural Action on Facebook or its website. The program can be heard every Sunday at 11 a.m. PST on 96.1 FM (KLKY) across rural northeastern Oregon and streaming live on the Radio La Lay app.
*Vaccination rates are for people 18 years and older who have received at least one dose of any authorized COVID-19 vaccine. OHA’s data dashboards include county-level vaccination rate data by race and ethnicity, as well as county-level data vaccination rate data for the general population.