Magdaleno Diáz left his birthplace in the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains in Mexico nearly three decades ago to work various jobs in Western Colorado. Nowadays, that work includes volunteering to help other natives of his homeland survive a pandemic.
Diáz has taken on the job of helping to contact 160 speakers of his native Cora language who live in Gunnison County. Until now, those residents have been mostly absent from efforts to reach every segment of the population with information about testing and sheltering in place. They have also not been plugged in to services to help with rent and food.
Diáz and other leaders in the Gunnison Cora community – believed to be the largest outside of Mexico – have been tapped by the Gunnison County Department of Health and Human Services to help reach out to Spanish and Cora speakers who have not been coming forward for testing or for self-reporting of COVID-19 symptoms.
The latest county tallies show that only four of 707 residents self-reporting online that they are symptomatic are Spanish or Cora speakers. In the first three weeks of testing, no Latino or Cora community members came to the testing site.
“I think they are afraid to talk to anybody,” Diáz said. “These people – they know me, so I try to explain what to do if they need help.”
Gunnison County, with more COVID-19 cases per capita than just about anywhere in the country, has been trying to reach the Hispanic population since the novel coronavirus first started spreading there a month ago. Twice daily updates on the coronavirus have been translated into Spanish. Schools have been sending information to homes via the internet in Spanish and Cora.
The Cora are an indigenous ethnic group from the Mexican state of Nayarit. There are an estimated 25,000 Coras in the mountainous areas of Nayarit. Approximately 160 Cora people now live and work around Gunnison, and the majority come from a single town in Nayarit, Jesus Maria.
The Cora language is very different from Spanish. It is more closely related to the Ute language than to Spanish, so language remains a barrier for the Cora in and around Gunnison.
Devan Haney, who took over as the Multicultural Resource Coordinator for Gunnison County four days prior to the county declaring there was a serious outbreak there and beginning to issue social distancing orders, said she initially went around to neighborhoods where many of the Spanish and Cora speakers live and hung information on 200 doorknobs. She tried using Facebook and other internet platforms that appeared to be working well with the rest of the population. She put together a translation team for all pandemic-related materials. She invited Latina women to participate in making masks.
But the Latino population still wasn’t coming forward in any significant numbers.
“A lot of these people are struggling with a fear of the unknown. They are afraid to come to the screening sites,” Haney said. “There is the language barrier. And if you are undocumented, the strict county orders are very scary.”
Haney was referring to county orders that prohibit people from traveling to Gunnison County for anything but essential business. Those who leave the county and try to return must be in quarantine for 14 days. Those visiting the county have been ordered to leave under penalty of fines and jail time if they don’t.
Last week, Haney went to Hispanic leaders, like ministers and trusted community members, including Diáz, and asked them to put together a phone list of Spanish and Cora-speaking members of the community. They came up with 160, and they started working the phones. They were finally able to persuade some to come for testing and to receive services like rent assistance and food from a community food bank where Diáz also volunteers. Volunteers were able to communicate with employers to explain that some workers were staying home because they were symptomatic.
Diáz and Haney pointed out that it has been so difficult to break into that population with information and with aid because the Cora people tend to keep to themselves when they aren’t out working in hotels, restaurants, and construction and house-cleaning jobs. A few also work on ranches.
What makes them difficult to reach may also have saved a widespread outbreak of COVID-19 in their tight-knit community because they haven’t been interacting much with the general population where at least 101 residents have tested positive and two have died.
“They already know how to isolate,” Diáz said. “They have mostly been staying home when they heard of this sickness. They are afraid.”