By Mijente Contributing Author: Yara Simón (en español aquí)
In the best of times, community work has filled in the gaps — providing our communities with resources and support where the government has fallen short. Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, this work has become even more crucial. That’s why Mijente launched La Vida Loca(l), a new initiative to support and incubate community-led efforts, which build power sin el estado.
As respiratory disease COVID-19 has devastated many parts of the world, the United States government’s response has been slow and inadequate, with states left to fend for themselves and compete against each other for medical supplies. While we’ve seen some success in slowing down COVID-19 across the country, the number of coronavirus-related deaths has surpassed 80,000 — by far the highest death toll in the world. Yet, despite warnings from experts, Donald Trump has pushed to re-open states.
But doing this too soon further puts our communities at risk. Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities have a higher risk for COVID-19 because of underlying health issues, economic inequality, and the inability to socially distance themselves from others. Data has already shown–including via Mijente’s own report–that Latinxs have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus.
And our communities aren’t just contracting the disease at higher rates, they are also struggling to keep up financially. As unemployment rates rise, it’s Black and Latinx people who are more likely to be laid off. The federal government’s economic stimulus package meant to ease these burdens have not helped everyone. Unfortunately, undocumented immigrants — even if they filed their income taxes — and their households were left out. All the while, rent is still due, food still needs to be put on the table and health care is still a necessity. As a result, many are being left behind.
That’s where local organizing has come into play. Through mutual-aid efforts, our people are taking action to address these injustices.
In March, Mijente invited proposals on projects and campaigns focused on community buen vivir, self-governance structures and building collective autonomy as part of La Vida Loca(l). The initiative is a new component of Mijente’s long-going Sin El Estado work, which aims to highlight the many ways we can fight back without the state–and build our power independent of it.
After receiving dozens of proposals, today we are excited to announce the 11 that will receive financial assistance to launch or expand their work. All are Latinx-led and align with Mijente’s Principles of Unity.
These groups are a lifeline to our gente across the country by providing direct aid to those with HIV, equipping essential workers with masks, and feeding their communities–just to name a few.
As organizers, we are always looking to bring new people into our political home, to welcome and help nurture them and their work. We are proud to say that this group of La Vida Loca(l) projects includes founders of Mijente, longtime organizers, and people who are newer to our network and/or mutual aid work — but all are part of the Mijente organizing family.
La Vida Loca(l) is a ‘Sin El Estado’ initiative of Mijente. Sign up here to plug into Mijente’s ongoing Sin El Estado work.
Below, meet the campaigns and projects stepping up in the era of COVID-19.
Comedores Sociales de Puerto Rico, Inc. — Caguas, Puerto Rico
Taking a cue from the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, Comedores Sociales de Puerto Rico, Inc. has taken on food insecurity on the island since 2013. Since the onset of COVID-19, the organization — which is made up of 10 to 15 organizers — has reconfigured to avoid the risk of crowding community kitchens in order to keep people safe. It established a Compras Solidarias strategy, which provides non-perishable foods, vegetables, fruits, and more for approximately a week and a half for a single family. People can call to schedule a pick-up, limiting contact with others, at the Centro de Apoyo Mutuo (CAM) in Caguas.
Before the pandemic, Comedores Sociales de Puerto Rico worked on Comedor Social Universitario in universities. When Hurricane María struck Puerto Rico in 2017, the organization helped co-found CAM alongside Urbe a Pie. And now, they are ramping up efforts to meet increased demands.
“Before the pandemic, through the community lunchroom, we helped about 100 people from the university community each day. Since mid-April until May 11, we have distributed more than 1,600 Compras Solidarias, and it has helped more than 3,000 people from different communities,” said Marisel Robles, who provides administrative support and acquires funding for Comedores Sociales de Puerto Rico, Inc. “In other words, the need for food has drastically increased, but at the same time, economic support and volunteering have grown as well.”
As Robles explained, the government of Puerto Rico quickly sprang into lockdown mode, but this meant citizens didn’t have time to prepare.
“There was not a single aid offer from municipalities or government agencies,” Robles added. “They left the people devoid of services. They did not increase the contribution of the Asistencia Nutricional, nor of WIC. The right to receive unemployment money has been delayed for more than one month, and they closed the school cafeterias that provided two hot meals per day to their students. As of today, they have only provided meals two to three times last week, and it’s to no more than 20% of the school cafeterias available in the country. The infamous $1,200 incentive that the federal government promised only started to come this weekend to the people who have proven to file their tax returns. What does this mean? That the poorest, those most in need don’t have a way to sustain themselves, except through their community if they organize.”
Support from Mijente and other scholarships allows the small organization to continue doing its very important and necessary work. While establishing themselves as an alternative resource to the government, Comedores Sociales de Puerto Rico, Inc. also hopes to support community leaders outside their neighborhoods to give them the tools they need to set up similar spaces.
Pangea PR — San Juan & Mayaguez, Puerto Rico
Before COVID-19, Pangea PR provided a safe space for youth living with HIV. In the midst of the pandemic, its mission remains the same.
“Being positive is a momentous experience for many people, and the process of regaining control and relearning to live alongside HIV can be long and stressful,” said L’Orangelis Thomas Negrón, a community organizer for Pangea PR. “Spaces like Pangea exist so that this journey is less solitary, and so that all the tools that we have collectively developed are available to everyone. Many things have progressed, and yet, we continue to experience stigma and discrimination. These moments of isolation surface emotions associated with the stigma that we have long experienced. In addition to that is the lack of economic income to subsist and survive the pandemic as well as the reality of having a compromised immune system.”
In a world where virtual connections have taken precedence, Pangea PR is still able to offer its services and provide remote support. It has also worked to forge stronger connections. At the beginning of the pandemic, the Puerto Rico-based organization established a relationship with Red Mexicana de Jóvenes & Adolescentes Positivos to allow young Puerto Ricans the opportunity to exchange stories and ideas with young people in Mexico.
Pangea PR was started in late 2017 after Hurricane María by and for young adults living with HIV. According to Thomas Negrón, this community hasn’t received much help from the government. With funds from La Vida Loca(l), Pangea PR intends to take on two initiatives. The first is Ciclo de Conversatorios, where youth from Mexico, Argentina, Peru, El Salvador, and Puerto Rico can participate and receive support. The second is to continue working on a documentary about what spaces like Pangea PR mean for the empowerment and collective well being of those with HIV.
Catatumbo Cooperative Farm — Chicago, IL
Catatumbo Cooperative Farm is an immigrant worker cooperative that provides both equitable jobs and organic fruits, vegetables, and herbs to people in and around Chicago. “Our food is affordable and cultivated with deep reverence for the land and the hands that make it happen. The work we do is collaborative, always building networks, resources, and ideas,” said Ireri Unzueta Carrasco, who co-founded the cooperative alongside Vivi Moreno and Jazmin Martinez. “It is work that is part of a much larger effort of food and land sovereignty, and the reimagining of our relationships to each other, to the economy, and to other living beings and ecosystems.”
Because of COVID-19, the Catatumbo Cooperative Farm — which traces its history back to 2017 but officially started in 2019 — has seen a change in expectations. As Unzueta Carrasco explained, there’s a “pull” that the members farm more. Because more people require food, the cooperative has begun offering free CSA shares to some, while it also tries to find ways to support other community-led efforts. Being active within the community further shows its trustworthiness, which is pivotal for the cooperative’s success.
Many of the members of the CSA haven’t received help from the government. “Most of the members in our CSA are people with mixed-status families — meaning they were left out from the stimulus checks the federal government sent out,” Unzueta Carrasco added. “The communities we serve are also demographics that work as ‘essential workers,’ which in these times, means that the health of people of color’s health is being sacrificed in the name of profits. The government’s response has always been one of treating our community members as disposable. We’ve had to form our own networks of support and to challenge the actions of the federal government.”
With the help of La Vida Loca(l), Catatumbo Cooperative Farm will create a job for one community member to deliver produce to 15 families it works with. Funding will also go toward acquiring sanitation supplies to keep its members safe.
As Catatumbo finds ways to build community, it has learned that “now more than ever, [there’s a] need to support cooperative economics and and to show up for each other in order to ensure survival.”
Bordados Jirasol: Bordando Libertad / Embroidering Freedom — Columbia, South Carolina
When it launches, Bordados Jirasol: Bordando Libertad/Embroidering Freedom will use traditional embroidery as a way to reach economic independence, preserve cultural custom, and raise money for medical aid for the undocumented community. As machines replace traditional embroidery, the cooperative wants to change the public perception of embroidery from cheap and easy to something that is valuable and time-intensive.
But all of this was not the original plan. In 2019, Fuerza Jirasol — a group of Latinx and Chicanx Mijente members in South Carolina — wanted to refurbish old furniture. “When the pandemic arrived, we had to get creative since we were unable to start our pilot for the furniture project,” said Laura Cahue, the project advisor for Bordados Jirasol. “We re-tooled to work on a project that we could do during the pandemic and, at the same time, help us use digital meeting spaces to learn how to do cooperative work. The key for us was to learn how to work as a team when difficult challenges emerge.”
While this will be a new project, Bordado Jirasol is clear on who it wants to help: undocumented members of its community. South Carolina has mostly provided information about COVID-19 in English, excluding many who don’t speak the language.
“That has created a lot of confusion and misinformation in our community, creating an increased risk for contagion,” Cahue said. “Even though our cooperative hasn’t launched, our members have been personally helping undocumented community members who have been affected or fallen ill with COVID-19.”
Clínica Martín-Baró — San Francisco, CA
In San Francisco’s historic Mission District is an autonomous free clinic. Clínica Martín-Baró offers free clinics to marginalized groups. Run by undergraduate students from San Francisco State University and medical students and staff from UC San Francisco — all of whom are volunteers — it works to uplift Latinxs.
Unlike typical clinics and doctor’s offices, Clínica Martín-Baró — named after Spanish social psychologist Ignacio Martín-Baró who worked in El Salvador during the Civil War — aims to be a place free of intimidation. Instead of leaving patients to fill out complicated forms on their own, volunteers — who warmly greet them — help them through every step of the process.
The clinic is currently closed because of the pandemic, but it hasn’t stopped being a lifeline for the community, those who have been laid off, or labeled essential workers. “We have worked to respond to COVID-19 by reaching out to all our patients at the beginning of the epidemic,” said Fabián Luis C. Fernández, a volunteer and PhD Candidate at UCSF. “We did check-in calls with [more than 400] patients and are available to do telemedicine, refill prescriptions, make lab referrals, and offer resources to support our patients. We are working to offer more mutual aid to our patients and virtual communities for people to come together and support one another.”
And any bit of support is important at the moment. Latinxs account for about 15% of San Francisco’s population; yet, they make up about 25% of the city’s COVID-19 cases. With the funds from La Vida Loca(l), the clinic will create a series of virtual workshops and provide necessary items for its patients.
Colmenas de Apoyo Mutuo- The Bay Area, CA
Colmenas de Apoyo Mutuo hasn’t been around for very long, but it has set its sights on an ambitious project. In March, Las Colmenas de Apoyo Mutuo cropped up in response to COVID-19 to bring together those who want “to build a network of community rooted in dignity and a right to food. The process of starting seeds, sharing seedlings, growing food and sharing the harvest is our model for engaging community, building trust, and offering a space for collective efforts so that our gente have a buen vivir,” said Lisa Castellanos, a “table setter” for the group. “The Colmenas want to germinate, fertilize, and bring to fruit the imagination of regular people to create new community bonds rooted in empathy, humanity, and voice.”
While Castellanos said the state of California is handling the pandemic better than most states, the local government hasn’t been as swift. Regardless, there are still many who are affected. La Vida Loca(l) grant allows the group to create opportunities and build in Oakland, catering to those who have lost jobs and are feeling stressed because of the financial burden. It will allow them to build more hives.
“Like any colmena, it starts with one cell, then two, then three,” Castellanos said. “We know that you learn [by] doing, not meeting and talking only. Each cell is a community hub of gardeners, sowers, medicine makers, artists, and neighbors. We are not afraid to start small, to learn about the process and about each other. We know that it takes many hands to build something long-lasting. We want to share what we are learning and learn from others.”
La Brigada de Víveres — Portland, ME
“If I don’t work, then I won’t eat. I won’t be able to sustain my family.” This message sparked the beginning of La Brigada de Víveres. After outreach to the Latinx community in Portland, Maine about self-quarantining, organizers saw that following the recommended safety measures was not possible for everyone. The next day, on March 16, La Brigada de Víveres — a project of Presente Maine — was born to feed families.
In its first distribution, the group fed 50 families. This number increased continuously, and now, it feeds almost 1,500 families a week. And while it was initially set up to help undocumented Latinxs, it has expanded to help anyone who needs it.
“We get food to anyone who needs it because we know that our collective survival is the most important,” said Crystal Cron, who is the president of Presente Maine. “If you need food, you get food. It is a zero-barrier, zero-shame mutual aid effort. It is not charity. Food is a birthright.”
La Brigada de Víveres may have come out of COVID-19, but the lack of resources and justice for those it helps is nothing new. If anything, the pandemic has spotlighted why community is everything to marginalized groups.
“We have been let down time and time again with no access to adjust our immigration status, to unemployment, to federal stimulus, to Medicaid,” Cron said. “No aid is coming. But we are here, showing up for each other and fighting for our collective liberation.”
Elder and Homeless Support Network — San Antonio, TX
The elderly and the homeless are two groups that need increased support during the COVID-19 pandemic. In San Antonio, the Elder and Homeless Support Network is doing that work. Starting in March, community members saw how the most vulnerable were being affected. It began doing drop-offs of food, medical, and sanitation supplies to elders and families, but it also provided Chromebooks and iPads to students doing remote learning. In all, the organization supports about 40 households.
“Many people and families are being forgotten,” said Frankie Orona, the executive director of the Society of Native Nations. “We are helping many families that live paycheck to paycheck; we are helping elders and those with medical issues that make them vulnerable to COVID-19. We are assisting children and families that cannot afford it themselves nor the schools the children attend with resources for them to do at home learning via the internet. We are helping those that don’t have a vehicle or means of transportation or cannot physically ride two or three buses to get to a food bank mega center after closing the local neighborhood distribution centers. Or those who are disabled and don’t qualify for aid because they are not considered a senior citizen based on age.”
Aflorar Herb Collective — Louisville, KY
Aflorar Healing Collective spans borders. From Kentucky and Tennessee to California and Arizona, the collective works to produce and learn about herbs. Aflorar Healing Collective spawned after Sarah Nunez hosted healing and remedy classes through Liberation School South. “Through that project, organizers dreamt up what hosting classes and growing herbs could look like for people of color in Kentucky,” Nunez said. “Currently, we are eight people, two farms and members in Arizona, California, Tennessee, and Kentucky.”
With La Vida Loca(l), the collective has started to incubate this idea. And while members originally planned to work together on farms, the project will now start in people’s homes. The collective plans to work in cycles.
“At this point, we are starting herb plants by seed in our homes and one member is growing directly in the ground at her farm in eastern Kentucky. Next, we will create a process to include more members, distribute plants and seeds to others interested in learning and planting. In late summer, we will dry herbs and host learning circles for folks to share and spend time co-creating herbal remedies and growing stories together,” Nunez added. “The last phase for the winter months will be to put together a recipe book and digital archive of the project to share out. When possible we will also sell at local farmers markets [and] distribute to our families and community members in need. We are remaining flexible as well, as unique needs and issues arise in the time of this pandemic.”
Texas Mask Initiative — Statewide
At the beginning of the pandemic, the general public was told masks were not necessary. But as time has progressed, the Center for Disease Control suggested that everyone wear cloth face coverings (while keeping in mind that N95 masks and surgical masks are meant for healthcare professionals). In late March, the Texas Mask Initiative — founded by Marly Barraza and Nery Chavez — sprouted to help communities across the state get masks. The team — made up of six people — has donated more than 500 masks across Houston, El Paso, Dallas, San Antonio, Corpus Christi, and the Rio Grande Valley.
“Given that the state of Texas will not provide the necessary support and resources during this pandemic, the urgency to provide for communities of color and other marginalized groups became a top priority,” said Barraza, who sews masks for Houston and Dallas. “We began to contact various organizations and groups to offer mask donations and as the project grew, organizations began to reach out to us. We prioritize groups/organizations that serve marginalized communities, which include LGBTQIA+ Food Pantry, grocery store runners for DSA San Antonio, El Paso Child Crisis Center, mental health centers and various mutual-aid networks.”
The MIX — Nashville, TN
The MIX is a group of young adults who want to bring changes to their communities, the places that nurtured them. Starting in February 2018, the group has worked to fill in the gaps. Currently, under COVID-19, its mission remains the same. It is fundraising to meet the needs of its community.
“The community and a lot of members of The MIX are undocumented folks who are always left out of our government’s ideals,” said Alejandro Guizar Lozano, one of the group’s core members. “Just like always, we are forced to [step] in where our government has failed our essential community.”
With the grant from Mijente, The Mix will be able to help families that didn’t get financial help from the government. The money will also go toward expenses like gas and providing materials to make personal protective equipment.
While many are hoping for normalcy, Guizar Lozano said we should remember that pre-COVID-19 life is not something to aspire to.
“Normal looks like children being jailed and separated from their families; countless community members being incarcerated and deported; skyrocketing incarcerations across the board; rogue government agencies; and the destruction of working- and middle-class families while giving company bailouts and tax breaks to the wealthy. This is a time to say normal is not good enough anymore.”