'They believe in us': How local groups help Latinos survive the fallout of COVID-19

Finding the right combination of services has been the challenge in the immigrant Latino community during COVID-19.

A food distribution is held, part of the Meadow Park Initiative, on Thursday, October 1, 2020, at Friendship Park in Rochester. (Traci Westcott /
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For Dorian Escalante, a weekly visit to Family Service Rochester's popup food pantry is a necessary bit of help for her family.

Born in Mexico, she has lived in Southeast Minnesota for 19 years, working much of that time at a food processing plant in Plainview. But unable to work now, she turns to the government for assistance, using SNAP – the current name of the federal food stamp program – and pays rent using federal dollars as well.

A diabetic – putting her in a high-risk category for COVID-19 – Escalante is unable to work, and her family, which includes five children under the age of 20, survives through government programs and nonprofit organizations that keep a roof over their heads and food in the pantry.

"They help with medicines and food," Escalante said through a translator, her son, referring to FSR. On a Thursday afternoon, Escalante and her son picked up a box of food.


A food distribution is held, part of the Meadow Park Initiative, on Thursday, October 1, 2020, at Friendship Park in Rochester. (Traci Westcott /

An Expanding Problem

More and more, Latino families and individuals in Southeast Minnesota are facing tough financial times, and COVID-19 is a big reason.

State data on both COVID-19 and aid to Latinos since March, the start of the economic impact of the pandemic on different sectors and demographics in the economy, show Latinos have had a tougher time than others. Making up about 6 percent of Minnesota's population, Latinos account for 17 percent of all confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state.

But this disproportional health impact has not been met with a proportional amount of aid: Latinos, who make up 5 percent of Minnesota's workforce, have applied for only 5 percent of Minnesota's unemployment claims since March despite the larger percentage of COVID-19 cases and despite being more likely to face layoffs in that period.

The combination across Minnesota means that the state's Latino community is feeling the sting of the virus – from hospitalizations to economic impact and the fear of losing one's place in society – more than others.

It's All About Immigration Status

Dr. Jose Medina Inojosa, a cardiologist at Mayo Clinic who is also a Venezuelan immigrant, said the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service rule on public charge is a big reason why. Latino immigrants fear falling on the wrong side of the public charge rule, which states that to be a green card holder, an immigrant must prove financial stability. Anyone receiving public assistance lives under a threat of deportation if they receive public assistance for 12 months out of any 36-month period.

A food distribution is held, part of the Meadow Park Initiative, on Thursday, October 1, 2020, at Friendship Park in Rochester. (Traci Westcott /


With a fear of deportation keeping families from seeking the same help as white families or even other immigrant groups, they must often turn to organizations that can offer help while not putting families on the government's radar.

Medina Inojosa, for example, leads the local SOMOS Latinos group, which raises funds to help families in need in the Latino community. As a doctor he wants to help families deal with not only the economics of COVID-19 but the disease as well.

When a member of an immigrant Latino family gets a COVID-19 diagnosis, it means fighting the disease the hard way. This means getting them cleaning supplies, masks, Tylenol and Pedialyte to fight symptoms of the disease, and educating the family on social distancing.

"The first family we helped, the father had just received a liver transplant," Medina Inojosa said. The family – father, mother and two daughters – lived in a trailer park on Marion Road. "When COVID hit, she couldn’t leave the house because of concern of getting her father sick, and she lost her job."

All this led to financial devastation for the family.

Experts In Helping

Erika Pena spends her days working with Latino immigrants in the Meadow Park Apartments area of southeast Rochester.

On a rainy Thursday afternoon recently, she ran a popup food pantry at Friendship Park across the street from the apartments, serving more than 20 families in an afternoon with boxes of food to take home.

"They take whatever they need, but we have to control the amount with eggs and milk," said Pena, Outreach Specialist with the Meadow Park Initiative for Family Service Rochester. While the food delivery events might have limited numbers on those dairy items, they usually have plenty of other foods should anyone be in need. "If any family needs food later in the week, we deliver boxes on other days."


Erika Pena, an outreach specialist with the Meadow Park Initiative for Family Service Rochester, poses for a portrait during a food distribution event, part of the Meadow Park Initiative, on Thursday, October 1, 2020, at Friendship Park in Rochester. (Traci Westcott /

April Sutor, director of innovation and collaboration for Family Service Rochester, said FSR works with the United Way of Olmsted County and the Intercultural Mutual Assistance Association to help families meet their basic needs. And it's not just food or medicines where needs exist.

"We’ve had people who need furniture and linens and regular household items," Sutor said. "For people out there, it feels like their own little miracle when things come through."

A Variety Of Needs

Sutor said at Meadow Park, FSR has noticed an uptick in need for food, but getting them information on how to combat COVID-19 in their households is just as vital. Recently FSR has created videos in three languages – English, Somali and Spanish – in which they demonstrate how to properly clean items to prevent the spread of COVID-19, talk about and demonstrate social distancing, and discuss how to keep from spreading the disease even in a smaller living spaces.

"Some of these people can’t isolate because it’s too small a space," Sutor said. To make things easier, when delivering food FSR began adding incidentals to the supply boxes such as cleaning supplies, shampoo and even diapers, which can be in short supply.

Pena said when COVID-19 began, she received a lot of calls from clients concerned over lost jobs, lack of food in the house and pending bills without a source of money. While the immediate need was food, FSR has worked with its partners to try to fill some of the gaps.

"When the people have any issues, they believe what we do," Pena said. "They believe in us, that we can connect them with any solution or any resource for help."

This familiar face helps Latinos find help with COVID-19

In the immediate days and weeks after the COVID-19 shutdown began in Minnesota, Fr. Jose Morales' phone was busy.

A Catholic priest currently assigned to Mayo Clinic, Morales, a Colombian by birth and former associate pastor at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church here in Rochester, said it was trust that kept him busy. Trust in him and the church.

Distrust of the government.

"I know the leaders in the Hispanic community," Morales said. "They want someone they can trust. Someone they can pass their information to and know they will be safe. That trusting part is very important."

Fr. Jose Morales-Rojas
Fr. Jose Morales-Rojas (Contributed Photo)

Need For Help In The Dark

Whether in this country legally – with a work visa – or not, Latinos in Rochester and across Southeast Minnesota worry about putting themselves on the government's radar, said Dr. Jose Medina Inojosa. Medina leads the SOMOS Latinos group that helps raise funds and support the Latino community in Rochester.

"We have a group of individuals who have proven food, housing and job insecurity problems," Medina Inojosa said. The church has been the middleman between need and assistance.

Medina Inojosa said Morales has been the person who, when a new Latino family moves to Rochester and needs, say, six coats in December after arriving from a warmer climate, the priest lets aid organizations know there's a need. Or if a family needs $300 to get their furnace running, they tell him first.

"Through the years, it’s been little requests," Medina Inojosa said. "But in the first week we were sent home from Mayo, we got 12 families that can't pay their rent. I've never seen him as flustered."

Dr Jose Medina Inojosa.JPG
Dr. Jose Medina Inojosa, a cardiologist at Mayo Clinic, leads the local SOMOS Latino community that helps raise funds to support Latino immigrants in Rochester and the surrounding region. (Brian Todd/

Every Number Tells A Story

Each racial or ethnic group in Minnesota has its own problems with COVID-19, and if you look at the statistics, you can see part of the story.

The four largest racial groups in Minnesota are whites, 80 percent, Blacks, 7 percent, Latinx (Minnesota uses the non-binary term for people of Latin American descent on its websites) 6 percent, and Asians, 5 percent. Whites have tested positive for 55 percent of the state's COVID-19 cases, with Blacks getting 18 percent, Latinx getting 17 percent and Asians 6 percent.

However, when those numbers are broken down by cases per 100,000 individuals in the group, Latinx lead the way at 5,685 per 100,000, Blacks at 4,407 per 100,000, Asians at 1,763 per 100,00 and whites at 1,098 per 100,000.

With both Blacks and Latinx suffering from COVID-19 at more than twice the rate of their population percentage, it would make sense that they experienced similar secondary effects such as job loss and and need for government aid. But that isn't the case.

Blacks, who represent 6 percent of Minnesota's labor force, represent 11 percent of the unemployment claims since March. But Latinx, who represent 5 percent of the labor force have only applied for 5 percent of the unemployment claims during the same time. Yet, compared to the state average, Latinx are 6 percent more likely to suffer from job layoffs due to COVID-19 and are 8 percent less likely to have a job that allows them to work from home.

All this would indicate Latinx families, while disproportionately contracting COVID-19, are less likely to get the help they need, especially help from the government.

Misunderstanding Sources Of Help

How bad is the Latino community's desire to avoid the government? Well, Inojosa Medina explained that the public charge rule – a regulation of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service – that says immigrants who do are likely to require public welfare could have their immigration status impacted. Concern over the public charge rule leads to immigrants' biggest fear: deportation.

On top of that, Inojosa Medina said when Family Service Rochester would show up to offer help, the organization was met with some trepidation. The words "Family Service" brought to mind government organizations that might take your children if they think those kids aren't living in a safe environment. But with Fr. Morales or someone else from St. Francis church there to explain the role of the social service agency, Latin immigrants would trust it.

Matters are only made worse when COVID-19 enters the equation. When one family member loses a job due to COVID-19, it can spread quickly in the household, where other adults might have seen their hours cut or lost a job due to the economic slowdown impacting certain industries such as hotels, where Latinos often work as housekeeping staff, said April Sutor, director of innovation and collaboration for Family Service Rochester.

Medina Inojosa said there's also risk factors for Latinos, such as a higher rate of diabetes, which puts them at high risk for catching COVID-19.

"Bills and what they have to pay has become a big issue for them," Medina Inojosa said. "Many of them are diabetics so they have to buy insulin, which is so expensive, and they don’t have health insurance."

In the end, the doctor said, it's a matter of finding families in need within the Latino community and helping them get to the agencies that can get them through the economic struggle of the pandemic.

"We need to earn these people’s trust," Inojosa Medina said. "We went to every house and wanted to get to know the people."

Related Topics: CORONAVIRUS
Brian Todd is the news editor at the Post Bulletin. When not at work, he spends time with his family, roots for the Houston Astros and watches his miniature dachshund sleep, which is why that dog is more bratwurst than hotdog. Readers can reach Brian at 507-285-7715 or
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