In Rural Missouri, Latinos Learn to Contain and Cope With the Coronavirus

Francisco Bonilla is a pastor in Carthage, Missouri, tending to the spiritual needs of the

Francisco Bonilla is a pastor in Carthage, Missouri, tending to the spiritual needs of the town’s growing Latino community. He’s also a media personality, broadcasting his voice far beyond the walls of Casa de Sanidad. Bonilla runs a low-power, Spanish-language radio station from the church.

He mainly uses the station to broadcast sermons and religious music. But these days he is also focused on COVID-19: explaining the illness and its symptoms, updating his listeners with the newest case counts and bringing on guests. He has broadcast interviews with a local nurse and with investigators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Bonilla and some fellow pastors have closed their churches amid the pandemic. But there are some 30 churches serving the town’s Latino community, and he said other pastors haven’t acted as responsibly. Bonilla said some church leaders may believe that not holding services means they don’t have faith and that they want to show God is in control.

Starting in June, the southwestern corner of Missouri experienced a surge of coronavirus cases, including an outbreak among workers at the Butterball poultry-processing plant in Carthage. Coronavirus infections have been a problem at food-processing plants in many states. The impact has been particularly hard on nearby Latino communities, which often provide the bulk of the workforce at the plants.

Hispanics have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Nationwide, Hispanic patients are hospitalized for COVID-19 at four times the rate of non-Hispanic whites. (Hispanics can be of any race or combination of races.)

In Missouri, Hispanics and Latinos make up 4% of the state’s population but 14% of cases in which race or ethnicity is known. In Jasper County, where Carthage is located, they account for almost 40% of the confirmed cases but only 8.5% of the population, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

Many Latin American immigrants came to Carthage to work at the Butterball plant, which employs roughly 800 people in the town of about 15,000. The first to arrive in Carthage were predominantly from Mexico. But those who moved to the area over the past two decades came primarily from Guatemala and El Salvador.

The Butterball plant is half a mile from Carthage’s town square, a straight shot north along Main Street. Along the stretch are small shops and restaurants, many with Spanish-language flyers in the windows. They advertise money transfer services, self-help books and the availability of regional ingredients from Guatemala and El Salvador.

The Butterball plant has always been a sort of anchor for Carthage Councilman Juan Topete. His Mexican American parents worked there in the 1990s, after moving the family to Carthage from Los Angeles. When he was younger, Topete also worked for Butterball.

“My family came from having nothing, whatever we had in our U-Haul and that was it, to owning a restaurant and selling it later and being well established in the community,” Topete explained.

It’s a common story for many of the Latin American immigrants to Carthage, who can find well-paying jobs at the plant without having to speak English.

“When I first moved down here, if you were Hispanic you knew each other,” Topete said. “It was a very tight group and it has expanded tremendously these last few years.”

Shops like the Supermercado Coatepeque line a half-mile stretch of Main Street that runs from the town square to the Butterball plant in Carthage, Missouri.

These days, a third of the people in Carthage are Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2016, Topete won a seat on the City Council, the first Latino resident to do so.

Topete said the Latino residents at Butterball and in other essential jobs face pressure on several fronts. Some who test positive for the coronavirus feel they have to keep going to work. They’re afraid of being laid off, or they need the money for their families.

“I do know people that have tested positive,” Topete said. “I try to stay in contact by calling them, following up on them, making sure they’re doing OK.”

A CDC team visited Carthage to investigate the outbreak. They reported the virus made its way into the Butterball plant, infecting workers and spreading through their families. In a statement, Butterball confirmed workers have tested positive but declined to say how many.

Topete said some residents still don’t know much about the disease, so the city is ramping up its outreach.

A Spanish-language public service announcement produced by the Carthage Police Department explains that the Missouri governor’s lifting of the statewide stay-at-home order doesn’t mean the virus is gone. The police department is part of the town’s COVID-19 task force and has helped Topete post Spanish-language flyers.

Such rural health departments face hurdles connecting to immigrant communities, said Lori Freeman, CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials. They typically have fewer language resources than their larger, urban counterparts, she said.

“In larger or even medium health departments, there are community health workers that are often bilingual or lingual enough to serve the communities that exist in the demographic area that they serve,” Freeman said.

At La Tiendita Mexican Market, a grocery store and restaurant, owner Jose Alvarado has taken steps to help keep his workers and customers safe. He’s concerned about children being exposed to the virus when their parents bring them in to shop, so he has posted a sign on the door asking that only one member of a family enter at a time. Next to the industrial tortilla maker, he has marked the floor with large X’s, as a visual guide and reminder for customers to stay socially distant from one another.

Topete fears the town’s Latino community could become a scapegoat for the virus. He said many people have the impression that the virus has affected only workers at the Butterball plant, when in reality it has spread throughout town.

Topete said Carthage officials need to keep up their outreach efforts but he sees the educational efforts working: On a recent trip to the store, he noticed more Latino shoppers than before wearing masks — and more of them were wearing masks than were the non-Hispanic shoppers.

This story is part of a partnership that includes KBIA, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

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