- Associated Press - Saturday, September 19, 2020

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Blanca Martinez Vasquez inhaled through her black red-and-white striped mask and furrowed her eyebrows, cocking her head to one side as she stared down the streaks of her highlighter masterpiece with one word in the middle.


“To know.”

Kimberly Ordenez, 12, sat across from her, taking breaks from coloring in intricate flower sketches to protect Blanca’s pan con pollo from hungry flies.

Blanca, 15, knew she and the other kids had her back; that every week she’d have a safe place on a grassy knoll in Southwood - a hub of Latino life in Richmond - to talk about emotions and how they dealt with bullying at school; that she could dream of being a designer and what her first year of high school would be like and they’d listen.

In a pandemic that upended lives and devastated Latino communities like theirs, the group became a lifeline - a chance for them to be kids again and cling to the days before the word “coronavirus” brought waves of dread and questions about the unknown.

Will someone I love test positive tomorrow? Will I see an eviction notice on the front door?

On a recent afternoon, they celebrated the end of summer and the start of a new school year by whacking a “2020” handmade papier-mâché piñata stuffed with strawberry hard candy. They stickied their hands with creamy mayo that slipped from homemade chicken sandwiches and swung their shoulders to the rhythms of Maluma and Prince Royce.

“You express what you feel to them and you could tell them basically anything,” Blanca said. “This group taught me to not let anybody stop you from doing what you want to do.”

The group was a crossroads of change and hope. The virus threatened to change that.

Living rooms - already packed with multiple families that often reside in one Southwood apartment - became classrooms. Gov. Ralph Northam declared stay-at-home orders in March when the pandemic was a newly christened virus and its impact not yet known.

Xiomara Vidal, a medical Spanish interpreter and outreach worker with the Virginia Department of Health in Southwood, remembered her first thought: the kids.

Many of the children’s parents work in front-line jobs that meant being away from home for hours, potentially exposed to a deadly virus. Day cares shut down, and health risks limited neighbors who would usually take them in from “echandoles un ojo” - keeping an eye on them.

The language barrier for some families meant Vidal wrangled with misinformation and ran around making sure the children had masks and hand sanitizer when they left the house.

A mother bear chasing after her cubs.

She worked to provide notebooks so the kids could journal and work on their writing; to raise donations to distribute food and water; ensure they could navigate virtual learning; and teach them the importance of washing their hands and taking precautions.

Every family has different needs and, inevitably, the group numbers dwindled, Vidal said. Some kids became caretakers for their younger siblings; some took on the roles of cooking and cleaning and picking up food from the pantries.

“Parents are working just to make it for their kids. They have to because they don’t know if tomorrow will bring employment,” Vidal said.

But the community came together, added Vidal, and the group members worked to reinvent themselves while navigating an ever-changing landscape that left them to balance being there for their parents and siblings and being there for themselves.

They’re young, with ages ranging from 4 to 15 years old. But like adults, their emotions are complex, Vidal said, and they understand the grief and loss the virus has brought with it - the cycle of talking about disease, upended routines and school closures.

They adjusted as Virginia Department of Health numbers showed cases spike in the state’s Latino population, compounding a community’s existing worries regarding immigration statuses, limited health care insurance and eviction rates with a pandemic.

Nationwide, 44% of Latino renters are unsure whether they’ll be able to pay their bills.

On Richmond’s eviction dockets, large complexes like Southwood Apartments - where rent fluctuates between $500 and $800 for a two-bedroom - are a common name listed.

Latinos are also three times more likely to be infected than white Americans. In May, a nationwide survey reported that one in four Latinos said they knew of a family member or friend who’d gotten sick. Now, it’s nearly half.

The youths know this well.

But in the one to two hours that they sit on the tented patch of grass next to the Southwood resource center, they talk nails instead. They’ve sharpened their political consciousness as the November election approaches and learned how people nationwide keep fighting against police violence and for racial justice. They throw their heads back in laughter while chatting about how one day, they could be doctors. Writers. Maybe lawyers.

Charloth, one of the group members whose parents asked that only her first name be printed, hasn’t decided yet.

She has to conquer middle school first.

She comes each week with her little brother and plops herself in the middle of socially distanced mats. Some of her older siblings are in college, and her mother is working to make sure that’s where they’ll stay. It’s complicated, Charloth said. There’s not enough money, and her mother can’t do it alone, she added.

Her eyes glistened as she dabbed the corners.

She’s still navigating the language barrier, a scary endeavor as she finishes her first week at a Richmond Public Schools middle school - the same one Kimberly is attending.

“Really?” asked Charloth, eyes crinkling.

Kimberly nodded as Charloth’s dimples deepened. Finally, another unknown answered. She’d have a friend.

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