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.