Celebrating Latinx Heritage Month

Writing about my Latinx heritage is complicated. In fact, I don’t often divulge my thoughts and feelings on the topic because there is so much to be said. While I have deep pride in the strength, courage and resilience of my family and our people, I also experience grief, sadness and anger over the corruption and poverty that has riddled each of my family’s countries – Mexico and the United States – for generations. 

Still, every year I celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month (or Latinx Heritage Month) from September 15 to October 15. I believe that it is important to pay tribute to those who fought hard to pave paths toward progress. To be reminded of the deep-rooted connection we have to one another. We must celebrate – as a rallying cry – our continuous fight to achieve equal standing in this society.    

Undoubtedly Worth Celebrating

 “Hispanic” and “Latinx” do not encapsulate the breadth of the culture for people with ancestors from Mexico, Central and South America, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean or Spain. Though each Latinx nation is uniquely its own, our heritage in the United States is profoundly interwoven and could never be summed up into one word.

As part of the Latinx community, it is paradoxically beautiful and messy the way in which our shared histories of struggle through Spanish and European colonization bring us together. The conquests of our indigenous roots and the migration to the land of democracy. And, it is undoubtedly worth celebrating.  

COVID-19 Testing Clinics

Carmen Miller at a COVID-19 Testing Clinic in Full PPE
Carmen Miller at a COVID-19 Testing Clinic in Full PPE

More than ever, I have seen and felt first-hand how closely connected Latinx people are to one another during this pandemic. Coronavirus has disproportionately impacted Latinx communities for various reasons. Though explanations could be debated at length, I’m not here to do that. I only want to share how significant it has been to be part of an organization that works fervently to improve access to health care for indigenous Mayan communities in Guatemala, Venezuelan refugees and vulnerable Colombians in Colombia, and Latinx people in the Pacific Northwest where we have the opportunity to provide urgent dental care and COVID-19 testing clinics.  

From July to August, I spent several weeks in Eastern Washington supporting COVID-19 testing clinics alongside colleagues and volunteers. Medical Teams was asked to lead the testing effort at the direction of the Washington State Department of Health. Our priority with the COVID-19 testing program, like each of our programs, is to reach the most vulnerable in the community. For this program that meant reaching communities surrounding some of Eastern Washington’s largest farms that depend on the hard work of migrant and immigrant workers to feed Americans.  

“Many of the people we were testing didn’t speak English, so when they have someone approach them who is speaking to them in Spanish, it makes them feel really comfortable. I could explain what was going to happen with the COVID-19 test, and I could tell it made them feel calm and at peace. I enjoyed getting to support the program for that reason.” 

Nayibe Tamboer
Nayibe at a Free COVID-19 Testing Clinic

Nayibe Tamboer is one of Medical Teams’ Dental Clinic Managers but has pivoted to support COVID-testing clinics during this pandemic. Originally from Colombia, Nayibe quickly connected to the Latinx people who came for testing—not because of a common country, but their common language and heritage. There is familiarity that doesn’t need to be spoken. 

“Many of the people I spoke to didn’t know how to be careful so it felt really important to have that opportunity to educate them on ways they can be safe from this virus.” 

Working in Extreme Heat

COVID-19 Testing Clinic staff and volunteers, WA, 2020
COVID-19 Clinic Staff and Volunteers in Yakima, WA

On most days, it was hard to think of anything beyond surviving the extreme Yakima heat in full PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). The teams were determined to move people through the testing lines as quickly and carefully as possible. One of the most poignant moments of the summer that made me pause and forget the extreme conditions happened on what was one of our hottest and largest testing days.

Meet Jorge

The majority of patients that day identified as Latinx, many coming to the clinic right after finishing work on a nearby farm. As I approached a truck to help one of our nurses register one couple in Spanish, the driver, Jorge, listed off his symptoms to me. “Fever, body aches, headaches, chills.” His wife who sat on the bench seat next to him, he said, had lost her sense of taste and was also experiencing headaches. All symptoms of COVID-19. With concern in his voice, as though he knew the answer I was about to give, Jorge asked me, “Can I go back to work tomorrow after I take the test?” I translated what Jorge asked back to our nurse. Knowing his symptoms and that he still had a fever, I was fully aware I would have to tell him that it wasn’t safe.  

The nurse agreed, and I turned back to Jorge with a pain in my chest as I explained to him that he would need to wait until he received his test results in 2-5 days. I was met with silence as he looked back at me with a hopeless expression. I knew that not working meant his family would suffer financially, and I wondered what they would have to sacrifice in order to keep themselves and others safe. Would they be able to make rent, or buy enough groceries to feed their family? 

As we proceeded forward with the test, I urged him that he needed to take good care of himself until he got the results. “Lo siento…cuidate mucho señor.”  

But Jorge wasn’t the only one—our team saw so many Latinx people who were very sick and living in a community highly affected by COVID-19 and for some, work conditions that did not contribute to their safety and well-being. The moment with Jorge wasn’t only heavy because he and his wife spoke in a language that I understand, but that their story is so familiar to my own family.

Looking into their eyes I didn’t see strangers, I saw my immigrant mother, aunts, uncles and cousins. I saw the panic of people who were struggling to make a life in a new country while fighting against a deadly virus. 

Latinx heritage is incredibly rich but filled with countless examples where its people have struggled: for their independence, for land, for food, for money—for their lives. Those stories often ended with our people overcoming the barriers they faced in remarkable ways and against all odds. My hope is to look back one day at this moment in time and see it as another instance where this is proven to be true. Even more, I hope to look back in disbelief that our people ever had to struggle so consistently for so long.    

Nayibe said it best: “It is a great honor to be part of an organization that is helping the Latinx community in this way.”  

Carmen Miller

Carmen Miller, Communications Officer, Medical Teams International


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