Since Governor Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency in response to the coronavirus outbreak in mid-March of this year, the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on Latinx* communities in North Carolina has grown startlingly evident.
According to data from the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, Latinxs, who constitute only 9 percent of North Carolina’s overall population, make up approximately 44 percent of the state’s COVID-19 cases for which ethnicity is known.
The disparity is even more glaring in Forsyth County, where Latinxs represent 13 percent of the population but 68 percent of those infected with the virus.
For Latinxs, however, the impacts of the pandemic extend far beyond contracting COVID-19. As essential workers in industries where social distancing is not always possible, some Latinxs have had to make a choice between their health and their paychecks.
Iliana Santillán, the people power director at the Raleigh-based advocacy group Poder NC Action, said, “After the chicken plants started getting hit [with COVID-19], people were too scared to go to work. A lot of people are asking for help to pay their bills. It’s really heartbreaking to see what they are going through.”
Federal relief packages have partially mitigated this economic fallout by distributing stimulus checks, expanding paid sick leave policies, and appropriating funds to reimburse providers for COVID-19 tests administered to the uninsured. At the local level, foundations across North Carolina like the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust and the Duke Endowment have supported those hit hardest by the virus by releasing millions of dollars in funds for aid.
Still, there are critical gaps in the populations that these relief efforts can reach and in the efficiency with which funds can be disbursed.
For example, Latinxs who are undocumented or who filed their taxes jointly with an Individual Tax Identification Number filer, with the exception of those from military families, are ineligible to receive stimulus checks from the government under the CARES Act.
Additionally, government regulations around patient identification have discouraged certain health care providers in the Latinx community from participating in the testing reimbursement program: to ensure that reimbursement claims are processed in a timely manner, providers must collect (or attest to their failed attempt to collect) social security numbers or state identification/driver’s license information from their uninsured patients This has proven difficult for groups like LliBott Consultorios Médicos, a primary care provider with clinics in the Triad and Triangle that has a policy of not soliciting its clients social security numbers.
The Hispanic League, a Winston-Salem-based nonprofit, has also experienced challenges in supporting its Latinx constituents. The organization was quick to respond to the outbreak, hosting Spanish-language Weekly COVID-19 Facebook Live Updates and running mask-distribution efforts at Latinx-owned businesses. When it came to addressing the Latinx community’s financial needs, however, the Hispanic League had to apply for outside funding, a process that can take up to several weeks or months.
As providers and service organizations have faced similar hurdles, some communities have found a way to take matters into their own hands: mutual aid.
What is mutual aid?
Mutual aid networks are grassroots-level platforms that facilitate the exchange of material goods, services, or funds between the members of a community. They take a variety of forms, from spreadsheets with information on the location of resources to websites where community members can post or fulfill requests for financial aid.
As a practice, mutual aid has a been a tool of community organizing for centuries. Friendly Societies in 18th-century England and Free African Societies of the postbellum United States established systems of cooperative benefit where members provided one another material, emotional, and financial support in the event of illness, accident-related unemployment, or a death in the family.
More recently, the Black Panther Party harnessed the power of mutual aid to run many of its “Survival Programs.” The party’s Free Breakfast Program of the 1960s and ‘70s, for example, relied on local grocers and volunteers to feed more than 20,000 schoolchildren a week in cities across the United States. Around the same time, the Panthers established a free around-the-clock ambulance service in Winston-Salem when they realized that the county refused to transport Blacks who could not afford to pay public ambulance fees up front.
Showing Up for NC’s Latinx Community
Mutual aid has proven to be an indispensable resource during the COVID-19 pandemic for Latinx communities across North Carolina. Operating on a peer-to-peer basis, mutual aid networks have mobilized resources efficiently to the areas of greatest need at a time when traditional aid infrastructures have lagged.
This is something that Loan Tran, the co-executive director of the grassroots intermediary the Southern Vision Alliance, has witnessed firsthand.
Earlier this year, the Southern Vision Alliance partnered with the Comité de Acción Popular to create the Migrant Solidarity Fund, an initiative to provide mutual aid and emergency assistance to undocumented migrants.
“When we launched the fund, we received applications from folks all across North Carolina and all over the country. It shows the tremendous gap and the tremendous pressure that organizers are under right now to respond,” said Tran.
Fortunately, as Tran put it, humans are good at showing up for one another. The Migrant Solidarity Fund has received community contributions of more than $5,000 that have fulfilled the aid requests of undocumented residents in 100 households across Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Wake County.
El Pueblo, a Raleigh-based nonprofit, is coordinating a similar fund—Mutual Aid for Immigrant Families—to support immigrants in North Carolina who have been financially impacted as a result of COVID-19.
Florence Simán, the program director at El Pueblo, says that the organization has been reviewing around 60 aid applications a week since early May. The process has been heart-wrenching.
“This week we read the application of a pregnant mother of six whose husband is in a detention center and is now in deportation proceedings,” Simán said. “This is a crisis situation.”
Still, like Tran, Simán has been encouraged by how the community has stepped up for its neighbors in this difficult time. To date, the fund has collected close to $40,000 in community contributions and funded 566 requests for aid.
“The need is so great, and it has been powerful to see our communities coming together, in solidarity,” says Simán. “Some folks have even reached out to me saying ‘I’ve applied for so and so,’ or ‘I put my email [on the application] because so and so doesn’t have one.’ People are supporting each other.”
Solidarity, Not Charity
In the world of mutual aid, this community building is paramount.
“Providing real material aid, that’s one aspect,” Tran said. “The other aspect has to be that folks continue to organize, to build power. [With mutual aid], we can come together to make changes to [our country’s] fundamentally inequitable social and economic systems.”
Mutual aid also seeks to ground these strengthened community relationships in trust and solidarity. Lily Levin, a rising sophomore at Duke University and administrator of Duke Mutual Aid, puts it this way: “[Mutual aid] is not a charitable favor. People don’t need to prove anything to us. We’re just trying to meet them where they’re at.”
Santillán—of Poder NC Action—has applied the same philosophy while managing Mi Para Ti, a mutual aid fund supporting Latinxs in rural North Carolina. She is proud of the fact that Mi Para Ti has been able to operate with no middlemen, facilitating the transfer of funds directly from givers to receivers via Cash App or Venmo.
“You don’t have to be a foundation or a have a six-figure salary or anything, you just give as much as you can, even $20.” she said. “Any amount helps. We are just trying to figure out how our community can make it to the end of the line.”
Santillán, like Levin, hopes that the popularity of mutual aid will outlive the pandemic.
“Even after COVID is past us, we want to be conscious of how we can maintain this network of community support that we all need,” she says. “We hope that Mi Para Ti—and mutual aid—are here to stay.”
For more information on mutual aid networks and how to start one in your own community, see:
- Big Door Brigade’s explainer, What do we mean by mutual aid? [Word Document]
- Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and organizer Mariame Kaba’s tool-kit [PDF] with step-by-step instructions on how to build a mutual aid network
- Mutual Aid Disaster Relief’s zine [PDF] with resources on safety practices for mutual aid during COVID-19
For more resources on COVID-19, see:
- El Pueblo’s COVID-19 Resources and Assistance page
- Siembra NC’s Community Resources in the time of COVID-19 page
- The La Cuarentena NC Facebook page
- The Hispanic League’s Coronavirus Resources page and COVID-19 hotline (336-701-6257), where you can call to find out information on the coronavirus, free COVID-19 testing sites, where to get a meal or masks, and more.
* We understand that the term ‘Latinx’ doesn’t apply to everyone. We chose to use it here out of respect for our interviewees, several of whom prefer and identify with ‘Latinx.’ As it appears in this article, ‘Latinx’ refers to people of Latin American origin and Hispanics.