Including Evangelical Latinos in the COVID-19 Public Health Response
Latino identity is intertwined with faith. For most, that faith is Catholicism. As a first-generation Mexican immigrant growing up in the United States, I was raised Catholic. It helped my family stay connected to the Mexican community in our rural, Southern town. It made a completely different place feel more like “home.” Our house decor included the Virgen de Guadalupe, paintings of The Last Supper, and images of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. My mother constantly said “Dios te bendiga” — God Bless You — or “Si Dios nos da licencia” — God willing — in everyday conversation. Over time, it became less about the religious meaning behind everything. I accepted Catholicism as a part of my Latina identity. Then, I grew up and became estranged with the Catholic faith. I’m a “former Catholic.”
I am not alone. More and more Latinos living in the United States are no longer Catholic. There’s been a steady decline — less than 50% of Latinos in the U.S. self-identify as Catholics. Latinos are embracing another faith: Protestantism. There is a growing number — 4 in 10 — who identify as “born again Christian.”
Even though the size and continued growth of evangelical Latinos are well documented, too many of our public and opinion leaders continue to treat Latinos as a monolith. This has become especially apparent in the United States’ response to COVID-19.
The diversity of thought and lack of understanding by these leaders has resulted in a one-size-fits-all public health campaign for Latino communities. Resources have been focused on the Catholic Latino community, the perceived majority, leaving a vacuum for both misinformation and disinformation to take hold in the Latino evangelical community. This creates an opportunity for other actors with bad intentions to spread incorrect and unuseful information that further disconnects our community from much-needed resources.
A shocking example of this is when Spanish-speaking Latinos in the U.S. searched for “get the vaccine” online, the top related keyword was “Sputnik.”
March polling data from the Pew Research Center showed that 28 percent of Latinos say they definitely or probably will not get the vaccine. For those who identify as Protestant, the number increases to 33 percent. This is especially worrisome because Latinos are overrepresented in the number of COVID-19 cases throughout the U.S. and are more likely to suffer worse outcomes than whites, including death. Getting Latinos vaccinated would make a big difference in these disproportionate outcomes. Not only that, but Latinos make up nearly 20% of the U.S. population; their decision to vaccinate or not can make or break our achievement of herd immunity.
Faith leaders are doing their best to find answers for their congregations’ questions surrounding the COVID-19 vaccines. Victor Chicas, Head Pastor at Ministerio Dios Habla Hoy, along with other Latino evangelical faith leaders, are trying to find resources that meet their communities’ needs. Unfortunately, they have no way of separating truth from lies, some of the latter coming from within evangelical leaders themselves. The result is an avalanche of misinformation and disinformation in evangelical Latino communities.
Some of the biggest concerns among Latino evangelicals include: Will the vaccine cause infertility? Will the vaccine track people? Will it alter your DNA? Ad Council and Gabriel Salguero, founder of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, have partnered to address these concerns with tailored messages for Latino evangelicals. However, their critical work needs more momentum, especially as Latino communities’ perception of public health information is tainted with a history of abuse by public health officials combined with fear of immigration, distrust of government, religious worries and accessibility of widespread mis/disinformation online.
The Latino evangelical community has largely been forgotten, which is a big mistake. They are not an insignificant group, whether it’s calculated by pure numbers or sphere of influence. Latino evangelicals are a growing population both in the United States and abroad. Moving forward, our leaders should recognize the diversity of the Latino population in the United States and make sure to include evangelical Latinos in policy decisions. We must listen to them and understand their specific concerns and needs to address them head-on. There should be more effort to expand initiatives like the Ad Council’s with Gabriel Salguero or create new ones.