When COVID-19 hit, Harold quickly reshaped his routine to protect his family. At first, his parents also followed public health guidelines, but as the pandemic extended they began to relax their precautions, even having people stay over on weekends. Harold says he has been deeply impacted by their carefree approach, especially because he fears for his infant son’s health—and theirs. Plus: a COVID-19 contact tracer joins the show to share strategies.
Our expert this week is Oscar Baez. He is a care resource coordinator with the Community Tracing Collaborative, and chairs the immigration working group that’s helping to engage immigrant communities and individuals who have tested positive with COVID-19. Oscar is a contact tracer for Partners in Health. Learm more about the organization here. If you loved this episode, be sure to check out Trying to Warn Mom about COVID-19 from Afar and Parents Might Be Spreading Fake News .
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Hi, everybody. Thanks for coming back to How to Talk to [Mamí and Papí] About Anything, and ni hao, new listeners. I’m Juleyka Lantigua-Williams. Today, I’m talking to Harold, whose predicament might seem very familiar to some of you five months into the COVID-19 pandemic. Harold has reshaped his routine to follow social distancing guidelines very strictly to protect himself, his wife who’s a doctor, and his infant son. His parents, not so much, and talking to them only seems to make matters worse. Let’s get into it.
Harold: My name is Harold. I’m in my early 40s and live in New York. Queens, New York. I’m from DR, born and raised, and in my household mom and dad papí and mamí. That’s always been the case. Papí and mamí. Because of the migration, my dad was here in the States and my mom raised me and my brothers back in DR, so we didn’t see him for a while, so it took about seven years for us to be back together. I’m guessing that them managing that dynamic must have been a pain, so I give them a lot of credit for keeping three boys in The Bronx, and their parenting must have been a pain, and I’m telling you, because my brothers and I are not easy.
So, they really had a grip on us, like every single decision had to be vetted by mom and dad. So, there was one time that I remember one night when my dad said, “Even if I’m wrong, I’m right.” That’s it. I mean, that’s… I could sum up like 20 years right there. That’s it. Don’t you dare question what I’m saying, that’s it.
Now with the pandemic, at the beginning, at the early beginning when everybody was freaking out in March, February-March, when this thing was coming and we were getting ready for it, my mom was the first one to say, “I don’t want any of you to visit me. I’m okay. I’m working from home. If you need anything, let me know, but I’m good. You don’t have to come visit me.” Because my wife is a medical professional, she’s an ER doctor, and she’s exposed to COVID patients, in our case we shouldn’t really be out and about anyway, because she’s exposed. So, but recently, I’ve noticed that my mom and dad are a little bit more relaxed about this, and I FaceTime with them constantly, and I see them at home with people visiting. Nobody’s been wearing a mask. “Oh, so and so is coming later.” And I’m just getting worried, like, “Why is so and so coming later? Why are you getting visitors?”
When I ask them about why are people visiting, they don’t say much, because I think they acknowledge that they shouldn’t be doing it. I’ve only visited once in the whole time. Their grandson is nine months old, so they wanted to see him. Visiting them was hard in the sense that I told them, “We’re gonna go visit, but everybody’s gonna wear a mask.” And we were there in the backyard, and it was super awkward. They’re there, and my son doesn’t know them, and everybody’s wearing a mask, and he’s just looking at us like, “What are we doing here?”
Eventually he warmed up a little bit, and my dad carried him, and it was somewhat normal, but it was just painful. And then I noticed that when a neighbor… Back yards are one next to each other, and my mom said to the neighbor, “Oh, my son is here, so that’s why I’m wearing a mask.” So, I’m thinking, “Oh, so you don’t wear it. Mom, it’s like you don’t wear a mask!” That worried me. I didn’t make much of it. But it all came to a head a couple weeks ago when I called them and we were doing FaceTime, then mom told me, “Oh yeah, your cousin came to visit, and he stayed over with his wife and his kid.” And I asked, “Mom, but you think that’s okay? That’s safe?” And you know, I’ve been trying to think about this, how to have this conversation, because it’s been building up for a while now, so I’ve been planning it out in my head how to tell them like, “Maybe you guys shouldn’t be doing this.”
And then she tells me, “Oh, but they had COVID already and they’re negative, and they got tested two weeks ago.” And I’m just thinking to myself, “But you know they can get it again, right?” And at that point, “Yeah, I saw that on the news, but you know, we have to live.” So, that went like that. It just ended, so I figured let me call my brothers and talk to them about this. And then they tell me, “Oh yeah, we go visit all the time. I have to see mamí and papí. I have to see them. So, that became an argument. Well, you feel that strong about it, let’s bring dad into the call, and that got ugly. I have never seen my dad so mad, because like, “How dare you tell me this again? You told me already about it, how you want me to kneel and promise you that I’m not gonna do this. What do you want from me? I’m your dad, you have to remember that I’m your dad. You already told me this.” It went horribly, like I tried, and I just kept reflecting on it. I was just thinking like, “You know what? They’re gonna get sick.” Because they’re gonna get sick. That’s it. I have to prepare for that now, you know?
I have thought about the fact that they’re not ready to deal with their mortality and I really have come to the conclusion that they’re in denial. I really don’t know what other logical explanation there is to this. It’s just like they want to have people over. It’s the summertime. And you know, a lot of people are doing this. They’re not the only ones. But these are the only people I’m dealing with that I really have to worry for. I’m really mad at the fact that I have to worry about them getting sick because they’re not being careful, you know? It keeps me up at night sometimes. It really does. There’s no other words. It’s just upsetting. It’s just disappointing. It’s just… I don’t know how to deal with this. I just don’t.
Harold talking about his fears for his parents’ health and his sense of helplessness left me really shaken. Those conversations would leave any of us feeling depleted, but there’s a voice whispering to me, “There must be a way to convince his folks.” To help us find it, I called in an expert.
Oscar Baez: My name is Oscar Baez. I am a care resource coordinator with the Community Tracing Collaborative, and specifically I chair the immigration working group that’s helping to engage immigrant communities who have, and individuals, who have tested positive with COVID-19.
So, Oscar, you heard Harold’s story. What do you make of it?
Baez: So, in addition to my professional background working in the COVID-19 context with immigrant communities, like Harold, I’m Dominican American, as well. I was born in Santo Domingo and grew up in a Dominican American household, and so a lot of what he said to me struck home on a personal level. We are members of what I call the 1.5 generation. We’re kind of the bridge in between two worlds, and oftentimes it’s trying to navigate how we are approaching COVID-19 and the new normal that we’re all living in from kind of the U.S. perspective, while understanding that a lot of where our parents are coming from is very much from what they know from back home.
So, how do you help folks like Harold’s parents and your parents to bridge that gap?
Baez: So, the first thing is when it comes to COVID-19, the first barrier, in addition to any kind of linguistic barriers that might exist in these communities, is just trying to build trust. In my personal experience, again, I’ve been on the phone with families who have been asked to quarantine and isolate because they tested positive for COVID-19. I have to then say on the phone, “For the greater good, stay home.” And that’s a tall order. When it comes to within one household specifically, a lot of times it’s about finding kind of shared values between two perspectives. So, oftentimes we’ve seen a lot of myth busting campaigns trying to get people to adhere to social distancing measures and realizing it’s solidarity. It’s protect yourself to protect everyone else.
So, a lot of times it’s just finding them in the middle. We’ve often heard of the statistics in very much an American context. So, you hear in the news where the number of deaths nationally has surpassed the number of deaths in Vietnam for Americans. That doesn’t strike the same chord for our own families, so it’s about placing all of that in that other national context. So, instead of the Vietnam example, maybe it’s, “Right now we’re asking all of society to protect the older generation.” And so, the example of if you’ve already been through something serious in the Dominican Republic, la era de Trujillo, then social distancing, staying six feet apart is something that should be a piece of cake. Putting it in a different national context, even though obviously it’s not… We’re not in the DR anymore.
Right, right. But in Harold’s particular case, he has a grandchild that they want to spend time with, and it seemed that it wasn’t compelling enough of a reason for them to take precautions. How can you use information, or how can you use persuasive tools to make the case that this is really important, and I need you to do this not even for the greater good. For the sake of your grandchild.
Baez: And that’s exactly the point, so I think we do have to stress the gravity of what this is. If you’ve been immediately and directly impacted, it’s easy to immediately sense the gravity of it. Less so when it’s just statistics and numbers. So, I think it really is about trying to connect. Oftentimes, in the case of Harold, and very much so in our families, where there is a sense of traditional roles within a household, it’s very much about respecting our elders, and that is critical. La familia is everything, but within that same context, in order to find that shared value, to make sure that it’s not just about finding that tradeoff. You’re not going to see your grandchild up close, and hug and kiss him all the time, but it’s because it’s in order to see them in the long term, and oftentimes it’s about bringing those actual examples of people that have been affected and it’s not about just listing the guidelines and translating them verbatim. It’s about saying, “I know a family, immigrant families with newborns, who maybe were undocumented, uninsured, unemployed, didn’t have any financial assistance to get through even quarantine and were overwhelmed and still had to adhere to obviously isolation and quarantine.” So, compared to that situation, then having a Zoom call with your grandson, it doesn’t seem like so much if they haven’t experienced that firsthand.
Right. So, actually I want to ask you about what are some of the experiences specifically among immigrants and Latinos that you’ve come across in your work that you think were either facilitated by or made worse by some of our cultural norms and cultural practices?
Baez: In our work, we’ve had to very proactively look at myth busting. So again, fake news, and what the WHO has actually called an infodemic, being just as harmful as the pandemic itself. So again, we take it kind of as a joke that the cure for everything is Vicks VapoRub, Vicks VapoRub, is going to just solve everything. Eso no es el caso, unfortunately. So, having a little bit of science to let them know that this is unprecedented, and we have to follow the science because we don’t have a cure, and again, I think to Harold’s challenge, oftentimes we need to enlist the support of our broader family. So, if Harold is finding himself in a situation where he does not want to disrespect his father by insisting on adhering to these measures, maybe enlist the support del tío, or another tío abuelo, somebody that can also… Maybe they’re like minded. I know one of the most effective social media campaigns early on in this pandemic in Italy was this grandma that went viral because she used, in all of her jargon, the explanation for why it’s important to… not to shake hands but do air kisses. Do a wink. Why did it go viral? Because it was still following the tips from grandma.
So, that’s actually a perfect segue, because I wanted to ask you, each of us in our families plays a different role, so I’m forever the big sister, right? And that gives me certain authority in certain things. So, how can we, within immigrant, Black and Brown, Latino families, how can everybody utilize their particular role in the family to further the agenda of safety, of taking precautions, and of better taking care of ourselves in this situation?
Baez: It’s so complex, right? It’s multigenerational, intercultural families. Oftentimes, we do need to divide and conquer, and when having these really tough conversations, specifically within the sibling group, if you have the luxury of having several adult children within a family, it might be assigning who’s a peacemaker? Who’s the one that has… Who’s daddy’s girl in this case? If Harold has a sister, can she be the one to broach and ask for this kind of a cooperation, as opposed to it falling to the role of just, for example, the sibling that happens to be physically close? And that’s the last… That’s a point I really want to make.
What I’m seeing across the board, and I think all of us who are tracking COVID-19, even informally, but absolutely in a professional way, we see that this pandemic does not discriminate in terms of who it can be impacted by, can test positive, but it disproportionately impacts people of color and immigrant communities. It’s the toughest moment, and we rely on everyone’s cooperation, and oftentimes the children to step up and meet this challenge, because unfortunately, oftentimes in our system, the most essential are the most expendable, so it really is important for us to continue to highlight for our families, as difficult as these conversations are, that it’s, nuestra gente. They’re the ones that are suffering the most and it’s on us to get through this.
Thank you so much. I so appreciate you taking the time. This is like a public service that you’re doing.
Baez: Thank you.
All right. Let’s recap what we learned from Oscar. Put things in their context. Point to examples of difficult situations your parents endured. Hurricanes, civil wars, famine, fleeing their country, religious persecution. Even though COVID-19 is nothing like anything we’ve experienced before, looking back on their own hardships might help them envision a way forward. Highlight their values. Appeal to their sense of family, community, solidarity. Doing that will get you further in convincing them to modify their behavior. Anchor your message on people. Instead of pointing to statistics and case numbers, focus on how their behavior can impact real people in their family and their neighborhood. Summon the elders. Ask an uncle or an aunt, or another like minded adult from their generation to broach the subject with them. It’s possible your parents don’t want to feel lectured by their kid. Divide and conquer. Leverage your family dynamics. Call in the peacemaker, daddy’s little girl, the favorite nephew, anyone who is more likely to influence them one-on-one. And remember, keep at it. As difficult as this conversation can be, you are one of the most reliable and trustworthy messengers your parents have. Keep at it!
Thank you so much for listening. De verdad, de corazón. From my heart. How to Talk to [Mamí and Papí] About Anything is an original production of Lantigua Williams & Co. Virginia Lora produced this episode. Kojin Tashiro mixed it. Micaela Rodríguez is our founding producer and social media editor. Cedric Wilson is our lead producer. On Twitter and Instagram, we’re @TalktoMamiPapi. Please remember to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts. Bye, everybody. Same place next week.
Lantigua-Williams, Juleyka, host. “Parents’ Reason for Ignoring COVID-19 Restrictions: ‘We gotta live.’” How to Talk to [Mamí & Papí] About Anything, Lantigua Williams & Co., August 3, 2020. TalkToMamiPapi.com.