You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Thousands in Hampton Roads who struggle with English feel left behind in a swirl of coronavirus news

Virginian  Pilot logo Virginian Pilot 11/2/2020 Ana Ley, The Virginian-Pilot
a person standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera: Mirna Arevalo is photographed with her children, from left, Cristina, 14, Adrian, 1, and Camila Peña, 9, at their home in Virginia Beach, Va. on Tuesday, April 14, 2020. © Kaitlin McKeown / The Virginian-Pilot/The Virginian-Pilot/TNS Mirna Arevalo is photographed with her children, from left, Cristina, 14, Adrian, 1, and Camila Peña, 9, at their home in Virginia Beach, Va. on Tuesday, April 14, 2020.

There’s a lot Mirna Arevalo doesn’t understand about the crisis unfurling around her.

She is among tens of thousands of people in Hampton Roads whose dominant language is Spanish, but most local governments and media outlets have been delivering updates about the coronavirus pandemic exclusively in English. As the nation around them from Seattle to Norfolk learns the language of COVID-19, many like Arevalo feel left behind.

“I follow national news, but they only talk about the big cities,” Arevalo said in Spanish during a phone interview from her townhome in the Chimney Hill neighborhood of Virginia Beach. “They never mention Virginia.”

Community advocates across the state say language barriers are keeping many from critical information about the pandemic, from how to prevent its infection to where to seek relief from its financial devastation. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, about 21,000 people in Virginia Beach — 5% of the city’s population — speak Spanish at home. The same number of people speak Asian and Pacific Island languages, such as Tagalog.

a little girl standing in front of a building: Mirna Arevalo is photographed with her children, from left, Camila, 9, Adrian, 1, and Cristina Peña, 14, at their home in Virginia Beach, Va. on Tuesday, April 14, 2020. © Kaitlin McKeown / The Virginian-Pilot/The Virginian-Pilot/TNS Mirna Arevalo is photographed with her children, from left, Camila, 9, Adrian, 1, and Cristina Peña, 14, at their home in Virginia Beach, Va. on Tuesday, April 14, 2020.

“We see people translate information via Google,” said John Cano, an advocacy specialist with the immigrant-rights organization CASA, which has offices in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia. “It’s not the best source.”

A machine service like Google Translate can’t be relied on to accurately reflect unprecedented, rapidly shifting and complex information about the global health crisis. Cano said people across the state who struggle with English are not only in the dark about important pandemic news, but are also vulnerable to scams and dangerous misinformation.

“Folks have been asking about certain remedies. There’s this one doctor mentioning if you apply something to your face then that will prevent you from getting COVID-19,” Cano said. “We’ve seen some documents that have the header of the office of the U.S. president saying you can get help and you would get it through a coupon or a debit card.”

From the capital, Gov. Ralph Northam’s weekly news conferences have been translated live by a sign language interpreter for those who are deaf or hard of hearing. No such accommodation has been made for people such as Arevalo. Even the Spanish-language pages on the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — the country’s top health authority — links users to English-language guidance documents.

Yet there is clearly demand. In Virginia Beach, the state’s largest city, nearly 13% of the population speaks a language other than English at home. Throughout the commonwealth, that group makes up an even bigger share at 16%.

Among Hampton Roads cities, Norfolk has the second-largest share at nearly 11%, followed by Newport News at just more than 10%. The two cities with the least number of foreign language speakers are Portsmouth and Suffolk, at about 5% each.

The week Northam declared an order requiring Virginians to stay at home amid the COVID-19 pandemic, interest in his name and the term “coronavirus” in Virginia grew among Google searches along with a related query posed in Spanish, according to data from the company.

“Síntomas del coronavirus?” people asked, wanting to know more about symptoms.

On Facebook, the nonprofit Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations created a page called “Coronavirus Informate VA” that aims to vet and share pandemic resources for Latinos living in the commonwealth. The group holds digital watch parties during Northam’s news conferences and translates his comments to Spanish in real time. But the effort’s reach so far is narrow, with only about 270 Facebook users listed as members as of Wednesday.

“Here in Richmond, I’ve seen too many people try to translate themselves and I don’t know where they get this information,” said Yanet Amado, 24, who speaks English fluently and is studying political science at Virginia Commonwealth University. “For example, when the governor declared his order, there was a lot of confusion about what is essential work.”

Amado is sifting through information for her loved ones who don’t speak English as well, steering them from false reports. She worries for her parents — her mother cleans houses and her father does landscaping work — because she doesn’t expect they will get a stimulus check like many others reeling from the pandemic’s financial blow. All three are living in the country illegally, and although she is protected from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, DACA is in limbo under President Trump’s administration.

“I don’t think it’s right,” she said. “I feel that we’ve contributed (to the country).”

A hundred miles away in Virginia Beach, Arevalo considers herself lucky. She has downloaded the WAVY-TV app on her smartphone, and she can follow along enough to get by. But she said some of her friends don’t own phone models that support apps like it or they simply don’t understand English language news articles.

Arevalo, who fled her native El Salvador nearly 20 years ago in hopes of a safer life, said she and her family are living legally in the United States through a temporary protection program given to immigrants seeking refuge from dangerous living conditions in their home countries. She said many others don’t share her comforts — a roof to sleep under, a paycheck and legal status.

“I’m speaking out for those who don’t have what I have,” Arevalo said in Spanish. “As Hispanics, we are always the last to receive information.”

She said some friends who have sought government assistance have been turned away either because they couldn’t find someone who could speak with them in Spanish or because the government workers they’ve turned to were unfamiliar with policies that benefit immigrants.

After a Virginian-Pilot reporter put out calls on social media for people struggling to find information in Spanish about coronavirus, messages poured in from as far away as New Jersey pleading for help. A man there identified himself as a 58-year-old undocumented field worker and said he was with a group soliciting work outside a McDonald’s in Long Beach. He asked for a phone number to an immigrant outreach organization he’d heard of, though he couldn’t quite remember what it was called.

In Fairfax County, Rev. Jerrold Foltz said a community of Guatemalan immigrants who gather at his church have lost jobs and coveted court dates for immigration proceedings. A woman in Prince William County coincidentally reached out to another Pilot reporter the same week asking for someone to speak with her in Spanish about finding a place to get tested for the virus near her home. She said she was immunocompromised and didn’t feel safe going to a hospital.

“People feel very vulnerable,” said Beatriz Amberman, who chairs the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations. “This community gets so much disrespect, but they’re the ones keeping vegetables, fish and chicken on the table. What are their protections?”

Arevalo said she is out of work because her small janitorial business is not considered essential in Virginia. So is her eldest son, who waits tables. But her husband still has his construction job, and she’s grateful they are living in the United States legally and that they have money for now.

After all, she said, so many others have lost so much more.

Ana Ley, 757-446-2478, ana.ley@pilotonline.com

———

©2020 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)

Visit The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) at pilotonline.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

AdChoices
AdChoices

More From Virginian Pilot

Virginian  Pilot
Virginian Pilot
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon