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Reimagining Latino Essentiality through Sound

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The following guest blog interview was submitted to the Hispanic Reading Room by patrons Keva Luke and Nelcy Ávila. It was originally published on the 4 Corners of the World blog.

A year has passed since the world underwent a global lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many Americans, who were hopeful that the SARS-CoV2 virus would not make a deadly landfall, saw what a lack of preparation and a novel virus could do. Fear, uncertainty and spurious data overwhelmed much of the beginning of 2020. Overburdened intensive care units (ICUs), vacant store shelves, and a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) characterized the beginning of the pandemic. The pandemic also brought to the forefront the people doing essential labor: Doctors, first responders, grocery clerks, farmworkers, and meatpackers fell into this category. It also inadvertently essentialized the labor that many documented and undocumented Latinos provide. Unfortunately, Latinos’ centrality to the fulfillment of others’ needs meant that their own needs and hardships were often invisible. For many of these workers, staying home was not financially feasible and remote work was not an option. Due to job and housing insecurity, many Latinos had no choice but to continue to go to their places of work, increasing the risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 to families and loved ones. According to the CDC, COVID-19 infections and death rates were very high within the Latino community.

Heroes Feeding America. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, © Jorge Garza. Courtesy of Amplifier LC-DIG-ppss-01158.

While there was a national and local response to COVID outbreaks, many civil society organizations, such as nonprofit organizations and churches, as well as individuals in the Latino community, lent a helping hand. Mobile food pantries, health clinics and COVID-19 testing resources were among the services provided to bridge the accessibility gap. Often excluded from federal benefits, many Latinos rely on the services provided by state governments and community organizations. Vulnerable Latino communities are facing a crisis of representation. Latinos who speak Indigenous languages, children, and mixed-status families (composed of at least one undocumented individual) are not always considered in policymaking. Families, in turn, have to rely on “familismo,” which is a family social network that shields and buffers families from severe trauma and disasters like the COVID-19 pandemic. Familismo is a cultural value that emphasizes the collective duty to honor, respect and reciprocate. Through familismo, the financial and social welfare of the family is secured. Familismo provides a sense of resilience, but it might not be sufficient to ease the financial and emotional burdens that many experience during the pandemic.

Due to the absence of a comprehensive nationwide standard for statistical gathering, the relatively high infection and death rates for vulnerable and minority populations in the United States were not immediately apparent. While statistics tell one story, through oral histories, individual voices provide textures of the Latino experience. Through words, sounds and the video recordings, Latinos share their knowledge through first-hand accounts. The Voces Oral History Center at the University of Texas at Austin has had notable success in conducting over 100 oral history interviews through the Voces of a Pandemic project. Administered by the Moody College of Communication and now added to the Library of Congress E-Resources Online Catalog, the project’s objective is to record, archive and disseminate interviews to help researchers, journalists and the broader public gain a general appreciation of the experiences in the Latino community during the COVID-19 pandemic. College students, adults, health care professionals, essential workers, educators, priests, and nonprofit leaders speak of the lack of health care that Latinos face as most are uninsured and underinsured. Inequalities in access to health care result in a host of untreated or undertreated health conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and obesity, which decrease immune responses and increase infection risks. Gross disparities in income, literacy, education, and access to food and health services for Latinos are enacted by historical exclusion, prejudice, and discrimination. As reiterated by many interviewees, immigrants, especially Latinos, are the essential workers who grow, harvest, and process foods for Americans. These individuals have also made sense of their experiences in ways that extend beyond conceptual frameworks of inequity in systems and policies. They refuse to see the condition of minority communities as normal, natural, or inevitable.

Essential Immigrants. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, © Jose Miguel Camacho. Courtesy of Amplifier LC-DIG-ppss-01114.

Children have used poetry to describe their lived experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Poetry and the poetic voice permit readers to experience the poet’s life through words. The IN Series, a nonprofit theater company in Washington DC, hosts the annual Gabriela Mistral Youth Poetry Competition, a program that celebrates the voices of the Washington DC metro area youth and is presented in honor of the legacy of the Chilean Nobel Laureate Gabriela Mistral, one of the Library’s recorded authors. (Read more about the poetry competition in this blog post.)

In 2020, IN Series partnered with the Library of Congress Hispanic Reading Room and over 60 young poets from ages 11 to 19 submitted poems. While youth are encouraged to submit poems on any topic in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Indigenous languages of the Americas, or a combination of these languages, the poets wrote about what it meant to be a young person living during a global pandemic. Children redefined the concept of a crisis, the home, and normality. Their words express uncertainty, hope, sensibility, and offer the perspective of a young generation and their often dismissed opinions. The winners of the competition were celebrated in a virtual ceremony with their friends, family members, teachers, judges, and Chilean poets including Raúl Zurita and Rosabetty Muñoz. The young poets had the opportunity to recite their poetry, further developing their unique sound and intuition.

The IN Series and the Library of Congress celebrate and archive poetry and oral histories through online platforms where individuals share their particular spoken language – may that be through lyrics, literature, educational pedagogy or other forms of cultural expression. The IN Series and LC PALABRA Archive recordings also include cultural groups who use dialects – distinct forms of language that characterize particular ethnicities or geographic regions, and numerous social conventions for human conversation. The voices showcase the richness and varied experiences of culturally and linguistically diverse communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. While body language has been limited during the virtual experience, the voice has regained its importance. Poetry and oral histories reawaken our senses and help shift marginalized voices to the center. Shared stories and poems allow us to highlight the elements in our cultures that codify, explain, and interpret a given moment in our lives. The archived stories and poems capture the powerful and insightful emotions and voices of Latinos. Through these pandemic projects, previously suppressed or silenced voices are making themselves heard.