For speakers of rare languages, COVID care was a struggle to navigate

As the pandemic raged, Indigenous immigrants from Latin America grappled with unique linguistic challenges and limited interpretation support in U.S. hospitals.

In November 2020, when Eulogia Romero was hospitalized with a severe COVID-19 infection, she feared the virus would kill her. During her 15-day stay in a Los Angeles hospital, she remembers, she felt disoriented and confused. Her family couldn’t visit her, and the 69-year-old rarely spoke to them over the phone because she was too weak, and on some days, barely conscious. She couldn’t communicate with the medical staff because she spoke a language that they didn’t, and no interpreter was available.

Romero grew up in a village called San Bartolomé Zoogocho in Oaxaca, one of the poorest states in southern Mexico and one that’s home to many Indigenous groups. She primarily speaks Zapotec, a language that’s considered endangered and has more than 50 dialects, none of which resemble Spanish. The one she speaks, called Zoogocho Zapotec, is particularly rare, and spoken by only a few thousand people living in Mexico and a small group who’ve immigrated to the United States.

Although Romero sensed she was well cared for in the hospital while receiving COVID-19 treatment, she wished an interpreter could have helped her speak with the doctors and nurses. Many Indigenous language-speaking immigrants like Romero have long faced this challenge when seeking health care in America, but the COVID-19 pandemic drew renewed attention to their plight.

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