The Crestone Eagle • July, 2020

Maya immigrants hit hard by COVID in Center, CO

by Larry Calloway

Explaining the surge in Saguache County COVID-19 cases, County Commissioner Jason Anderson of Crestone said, “All of our cases are completely focused in Center.” And, “Most are immigrants.”

But they are immigrants from an unusual culture: the indigenous Maya people of Guatemala and the bordering state of Chiapas in Mexico. English and Spanish are not their first languages. The families in worker housing speak a Maya dialect, health worker Janet Beiriger of Center said, identifying it as Q’anjab’al.

This is a dialect spoken especially in the western Guatemala states of Huehuetenango and Quiche, which are over 70% Maya. Rigoberta Menchu, who won the Nobel prize for her advocacy against Guatemalan military death squads, was from Quiche. Her best-selling book I, Rigoberta Menchu, is a personal testimony to the long suffering of her people.

The language barrier has made the coronavirus containment more difficult despite the ranks of volunteers, health officials, school employees and social workers who turned out on weekends in Center. “We have a lot of good people going door to door in full protective gear, knocking on doors saying what they can do to keep safe, handing out masks,” said Beiriger, an employee of the Saguache County health department. “We’re just doing everything in our power so we can get things under control.  So they can get educated.”

Some Maya people “speak enough Spanish to understand,” she said.

Potato foremen who know the native Maya dialect and some translate.

Anderson noted the Saguache County total was stable for a month at about three cases. “We sat there for a long time thinking our isolation was really going to help out.” Then came the outbreak at Mountain King Spud Growers in Rio Grande County just south of Center.

“The infection moved from there into the community,” he said. Still, “We don’t have a lot of intermixing between our communities and in this situation this has been a blessing.”

In addition to the cultural barrier in dealing with affected families was the problem that they apparently are not eligible for federal assistance, although Anderson was reluctant to go into this.

On its own, the Saguache County commission set up an emergency fund with $3,000 from the sales tax grant fund surplus, and the town of Center contributed another $3,000. The potato company closed its warehouse for two weeks of cleaning. And the state was “very helpful” with emergency services, social services, food banks, and ramped up testing,  Anderson said.

Both counties with jurisdiction over the Maya workers were without tenured health directors. Lynette Grant, the Saguache director, quit when the pandemic was declared. In Rio Grande County, the county commission firing of Emily Brown has caused political repercussions cited in a national Associated Press story, which said in the second paragraph:

“She was at odds with county commissioners, who were pushing to loosen public health restrictions in late May, against her advice. But she reasoned standing up for public health principles was worth it, even if she risked losing the job that allowed her to live close to her hometown.”

Beiringer, the health worker, said many of the people are now out of isolation and ready to work. “Sunlight and fresh air kill the virus rapidly,” she added, hopefully.