The full weight of the pandemic suddenly pressed down on Maria Davis in December, when, as her mother lay dying of COVID-19, she got a call from a family whose father had just died of the virus and was seeking comfort.
During the previous 10 months, Davis, a certified court interpreter from Reno, had been helping Spanish-speaking residents navigate the pandemic. Her efforts soon extended beyond translations. After working in a temporary position with the Washoe County Health District, she continued to be an advocate for families and often became close to the strangers who reached out to her for help.
“That night, we were told we had to say goodbye to my mom,” Davis said. “A family I’d been helping while their dad was in the hospital for weeks called about 11 o’clock to tell me he had died.”
“I’m in Sacramento waiting for my mother to take her last breath, and at the same time I’m trying to comfort (the Reno family) on the phone. They didn’t know I was going through the same thing they were; I didn’t want them to feel they were adding more sadness to my plate.” – Maria Davis, Spanish language translator.
Davis’ mom died less than two hours later. After her funeral, Davis decided to pull back from volunteer work. Death followed death; heartbreak overlaid heartbreak. “I didn’t want to do the (Mi Motivo COVID information) Facebook page anymore. I didn’t want to take calls anymore, because everything reminded me of my mom,” Davis said. “I wanted to take a long break from everything.”
Rejoining the fray
She stopped answering her cell phone if she didn’t recognize a number. The calls from people who needed help went to voice mail. As Davis listened to her messages, she heard a common story and a familiar name.
The woman in need of help said her name was Martina.
“Martina was my mom’s name,” Davis said. “I took it as a sign. I thought about my mom and how she believed that you should always help people. She would say that you should always share even if you have nothing, because there are always people who have less than nothing.”
Davis turned on her phone and got back to work. “I knew that I just couldn’t sit around and do nothing when there were things I could do to help,” she said.
An evolving role
A year ago, when she was hired to translate the Washoe County’s COVID-19 information to its web site into Spanish, Davis couldn’t have predicted where the job would lead.
“I helped get out the health information in Spanish, but when the contract ran out in June, I knew there was still a need for translators,” she said. Early in the pandemic, there was little information about the new virus, and Spanish speakers were particularly left out of the loop.
People were scared, Davis said, but they didn’t know who to trust. Undocumented people worried about being deported if they gave their information to the health department. “They didn’t know you could get tested for free and didn’t have to be a legal resident or have health insurance,” she said.
Failure to communicate
People who didn’t speak English and who had symptoms of the virus were afraid to go to the hospital where they would be separated from family members and unable to talk with doctors. The family that called Davis the night her mom died had that experience.
“The pandemic has removed the veil that undocumented people lived behind,” she said. “Now they are out in the bright daylight. They are the essential workers on the front lines of the pandemic. They can’t afford to stay home. Yet, they were not eligible for any pandemic relief assistance.” – Maria Davis, translator and advocate.
Davis noted that during the Trump administration, if even one spouse was an undocumented immigrant, no one in the household could get an assistance payment or take advantage of other relief programs. Some of the people who reached out to Davis told her of having to stay at their jobs even if they had COVID-19 symptoms.
She got calls from people who labored in warehouses, restaurants and other workplaces. She was told in some of those businesses, owners only followed the pandemic safety rules when they knew an inspection was scheduled.
“People called me in such fear,” Davis said. “They were showing symptoms but they weren’t allowed to go home, and if they did go home they would lose their jobs. How were they going to pay their rent and feed their families?”
“The message was that these people were replaceable. You may be getting sick but you are not leaving unless you are dead and then we’ll bring in somebody else to replace you. It broke my heart.” – Maria Davis.
Many people called her with the same story, but feared reprisals if they complained. “They didn’t turn their bosses in and they didn’t want me to file complaints. They felt trapped and they just wanted to vent,” she said.
Her phone rang at all hours; she listened to every caller. “Some people were just lonely,” Davis said. “They didn’t have any family here. They would say it’s just me and my husband and my child and we have symptoms and didn’t know how to get tested.”
An evolving role
She connected callers to whatever resources were available. If help was slow in coming, she sometimes brought food to the families herself. She learned everything she could about the virus so she could communicate facts to frightened people.
Translating led to advocacy and more volunteer work. She joined the Reno Cigar Lions’ Club, which donates laptops to students who need them for distance learning. Davis visited Fallon and spent time in the fields alongside farm workers to hear their concerns about the pandemic.
In October, Washoe County set up a Facebook page called Pongamos De Nuestra Parte (Let’s Do Our Part), a Spanish-language version of the health department’s Mask-on, Move-on campaign. That effort is the subject of a Reno News & Review sidebar to this story.
Reaching people where they live
She made banners, took part in Facebook Live broadcasts and visited businesses. She teamed up with other advocates, community leaders and clergy to educate people about precautions and the coming vaccines.
Over the last several months, Davis said, the campaign has made a difference.
“So many beautiful organizations, including the Children’s Cabinet, came together to help, to deliver food to those in need and the people who were quarantined,” she said. “People have been helping across the political aisles. Republican or Democrat, politics doesn’t matter; immigration status doesn’t matter. The virus doesn’t care about those things; it affects us all.”
Hospitals have interpreters available.. Many of the fears people had last year have been allayed. Davis now gets questions about the vaccines. Some callers are reluctant to get shots because they are worried about their safety.
Politics gets in the way
“I sometimes get calls even from well-educated, professional people who want to get vaccinated, but worry about risks,” Davis said. “I agree with them that there are rare instances of side effects. I tell them it’s their decision — they need to weigh the benefits and the risk factors themselves.
“As far as I know, everyone who has called me with those kinds of concerns has eventually gotten the vaccine. That’s not because I tell them what to do, but because I give them my opinions and the facts that I know, and then they decide. Sometimes people just need reassurance,” she said.
She also hears from people who are avoiding getting immunized because of political reasons.
“We need everyone to get vaccinated if we are ever able to regain some sense of normalcy,” Davis said. “People must look at the science and not the politics that got in the way because of the election. There was a lot of misinformation out there and people took advantage of it politically.”
She also hears conspiracy theories that sound like science fiction stories. Recently, she came across a website where people she knew were making fun of the pandemic. Yet, they had themselves taken steps to stay safe. She called them out.
“Some of the people making fun of the virus had secluded themselves so they would be safe; that’s hypocrisy,” Davis said. “They were being insensitive to all those lives that have been lost and among them is my mom. It’s not OK to do that.”
When the pandemic began, Davis thought the universal threat would bring all people together, fighting the same battle. She soon learned that if we’re all in the same boat, some people are in the first class section and many others are crowded into the steerage berths. It’s divided into “this group” and “that group;” we’re still not together as one community
“It was painful to see how many people are struggling through this,” she said. “I’m blessed. I could have stayed home and had barbecues with my kids every night and gone hiking with them every day… (But) I’m happy to help out in the community. There are people living with three kids in tiny apartments where they can no longer pay the rent.
“They are contributing to our society and the economy; we owe it to them to get them help when they need it. The information people needed wasn’t out there among the Hispanic community. It’s a community crisis but we weren’t including everyone in our response,” she said.
Hope for the future
Davis, who also helped in outreach efforts for Arabic-speaking refugees, said the health crisis transcends all differences among people. “We’re in the pandemic together and only by working together can we get out of it,” she said. “We can’t approach this by only worrying about our own little groups.”
Hearing from people she has previously helped keeps her going. “People have been so grateful,” she said. “That makes everything worthwhile and seeing that I did help. I have been really blessed to be a part of this community.”
Outreach efforts have made a difference, she said.
“I think the messages are getting across to people,” Davis said. “Hispanic people want to get the vaccine; they are being responsible. I think most people want to do what is right to protect their families and everyone else.”