– in CLOVERDALE, Calif.
Mayra Arreguin had knocked on every trailer in the sun-drenched barrio, the ones with the elaborate flower gardens and those with the boarded-up windows, too.
She had five days left to fill 100 coronavirus vaccine appointments that had been set aside by a local clinic for low-income families, and there were still holdouts in this small farmworker colony on the northern edge of California’s Sonoma County.
So, on this spring day, she pulled out her large yellow legal pad and rapped on the tan vinyl siding of one more mobile home.
A woman in an oversized white shirt and light blue shorts came out.
“Have you been vaccinated yet? Have your sisters?” Mayra asked in Spanish. She had tried them before.
“No,” responded the woman, Liliana. Her tone was sharp.
“Do you want to get vaccinated?” Mayra asked.
“No, not yet,” Liliana said.
“You’re not ready?” Mayra said. “Well, we’re here to support you. Whatever you decide.”
Liliana’s father came out to the porch. “They’re scared! I tell them it’s not a big deal, nothing happens,” he said in Spanish. He had received both coronavirus vaccine doses.
“You already got yours?” Mayra replied. “It’s up to you to convince her, then.”
For months, anti-vaccine conspiracy theories had ripped across northern California’s wine country, invisible wildfires of untruth spreading through some of the country’s most vulnerable communities. They were particularly damaging among the low-income Mexican and Mexican American families whose labor powers the region’s large agricultural economy.
The most common rumor was that the coronavirus vaccines caused infertility, which some said was part of a government plot to keep immigrants from having U.S.-born children. Even more fantastical beliefs circulated. There were suspicions that there were microchips embedded in the vaccines that could be used by the government to track undocumented workers. Others called it “La Vacuna de la Muerte,” the Vaccine of Death, and said that those who were inoculated would die in 10 years. Many also believed the false claim that mass abortions had been necessary to produce the vaccines.
The disinformation began to spread outward from Spanish-language YouTube and Facebook videos rendered in dense, scientific-sounding terms but laden with conspiracy theories. The false claims, often peddled by people who described themselves as doctors, were shared tens and hundreds of thousands of times. Those glossy clips were followed by articles from self-proclaimed wellness gurus and reactionary social media posts that danced across WhatsApp, a private mobile messaging application popular in Latin America.
Then the false claims filtered by word of mouth through Sonoma’s agricultural fields, wineries and restaurant kitchens, where Spanish-language fact checks could not counter them.
Mayra had become a familiar face to the families living in this out-of-sight Cloverdale neighborhood that hugged the inland bend of U.S. Highway 101. Throughout the pandemic, she and her fellow volunteers at La Familia Sana, a local nonprofit organization, had distributed boxes of chicken thighs, carrots, potatoes and other donated foods to keep laid-off farmworker families in town from going hungry.
Mayra and her fellow organizers hoped the credibility they had earned in the community could sustain them during one final vaccine push before fire season overwhelmed Northern California once again.
But distrust was another sort of kindling, and it burned hot here.
The unease that surrounded the vaccines had led to an overwhelming hesitancy, even among those who did not believe the more implausible elements of the conspiracy theories. It seemed now that for every person that had been inoculated against the virus in Latino neighborhoods like this one, there were two others who refused to do so. The setting was primed by threadbare medical care that usually came with big emergency-room bills and deep skepticism of the government that had worsened under President Donald Trump.
Mayra wondered how she could help deliver the protection people needed, the protection they deserved, if they did not want it. In a clinic one mile away, doctors now had more coronavirus vaccine doses than they knew what to do with.
Facts alone did not seem to work. And she did not know the science well enough to go point-for-point with the misinformation anyway.
She hoped that her presence would be more powerful than social media posts.
Mayra Arreguin has become a familiar face to the families living in this Cloverdale neighborhood. Throughout the pandemic, she has delivered food to help the individuals, some of whom expressed unease about coronavirus vaccines.
The outreach would need to be delicate: “We’re also coming through today to let you know there might be some economic assistance coming. We’ll know more on Wednesday,” Mayra told Liliana. “Would you be interested? Give me your number. Once I have more information, I’ll give you a call.”
Mayra wrote out Liliana’s name and number on her yellow legal pad. Her bright pink T-shirt echoed the pink hue of her nails. She gave Liliana her phone number, too, in case she changed her mind about vaccination.
After a moment Liliana’s body relaxed. She grew chattier.
“There’s all the stuff people say, and then look at what happened with the Johnson & Johnson. It scares us,” Liliana explained in Spanish. “We don’t know anyone who has died from it directly, but we hear about it. Two people I know who got the Pfizer got really sick; I saw them, they were laid out for days.”
“And, so, no thanks, not for me,” she added. “Once we’re ready, we will let you know.”
“We respect you, Liliana. We respect you,” Mayra said.
Mayra left the mobile home park having signed up just one person to get vaccinated that morning.
* * *
Like many who live in farming regions, Mayra had never really had just one job or one profession. She routinely slid between agricultural and domestic work, sometimes in the same day. She pinch-hit at a local winery, in the bottling plant and in the restaurant. She recalled the endless yards she used to manicure when she first moved to the United States more than 20 years ago.
She cleaned houses now, on the side, to bring in extra money for her and her three children.
She had found particular fulfillment in helping to care for elderly clients, those whose families lived far away and who needed help picking up groceries or tidying up their homes.
“It is a gift to be able to help people,” she said. “If you help someone, that’s for you to know. The reward is knowing you helped someone who needed it.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, she met Ezequiel Guzman, a local Mexican American community advocate. He took her under his wing, and now he called her “our champion.” Through his mentorship, Mayra was learning the art of community organizing.
The region needed people like her, Ezequiel said.
For all its beauty and reputation as a tourist destination, Sonoma County is also a land of crushing inequality. Ezequiel had seen all the ways the circumstances of farmworkers and their families had worsened since his family moved to the region in the late 1950s as migrant laborers. He saw homes with as many as 20 or 25 people living in them, he said, because of soaring housing costs driven in part by proximity to San Francisco.
Even before the pandemic, low-income families had been beaten down by waves of wildfires in recent years. Lost wages and dislocation had pushed many Sonoma residents into taking on debilitating debt from loan sharks. Ezequiel said one man told him that his family constantly had to choose between buying milk and toilet paper. They always chose the toilet paper.
Ezequiel, 68, had been one of the lucky ones to escape field work. Now in his would-be retirement years, as a college graduate with a professional background in workforce development, he felt a responsibility to bring attention and resources to these communities. Ezequiel founded La Familia Sana after the Kincade Fire in 2019 to help coordinate emergency resources for farmworkers disconnected from the safety net, who were often forgotten or failed by local disaster plans.
Although Latinos make up about 27 percent of the population in Sonoma, according to the Census Bureau, they accounted for 3 in 4 covid-19 cases in the county at a high point last summer.
That disproportionate burden was why La Familia Sana began to distribute safety information to farmworkers and their families. Since then, the group’s efforts had helped vaccinate hundreds and, perhaps, even thousands of farmworkers.
Ezequiel’s phone now rang with an endless stream of calls from local nonprofit directors, prominent physicians, and business owners. He had the ear of the police chief and the county board of supervisors.
Ezequiel, in turn, came to lean heavily on Mayra.
When the coronavirus vaccine rollout began, Mayra took a particular interest in helping low-income Mexican and Mexican American families secure hard-to-find appointments, especially to protect the elderly, like her parents, and those with respiratory vulnerabilities, like her 15-year-old daughter, Janet.
Mayra’s daughter was often glued to her side. Together they passed out health information, directed traffic at the local food bank and delivered warm meals to families in need.
Something Mayra did not talk much about was the domestic violence she endured when she was married in the early 2000s, during her first years in the United States, before she met Janet’s father. She left her marriage when alcohol-fueled threats from her then-husband began to turn into shoves.
She knew intimately that life for people without resources too often meant triaging one crisis after another.
“Sometimes, I feel like I give myself to this work to forget about my own life a little bit,” she said.
The pandemic had brought death and unemployment. The vaccines arrived like a miracle, a straightforward solution in a world without many.
The pace of vaccinations was fast, at first. Early in the pandemic, Ezequiel teamed up with physicians to go field to field for talks with farm crews that were hesitant, which drew the attention of local officials and growers who needed help communicating with their largely Mexican workforce.
But by late spring, the rhythms of the outreach had changed.
Those who really wanted to be vaccinated had been. The holdouts were becoming harder to reach.
Among the estimated 135,000 Sonoma residents of Hispanic or Latino descent, only about 50,000 had been either partially or fully vaccinated as of early May, according to estimates by the Census Bureau and the county government. And demand continued to drop off steadily week by week.
On a recent afternoon, Ezequiel was angry about the way federal health officials and the media had handled the initial reports in April that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine may be responsible for six women developing rare blood clots — without contextualizing the more than 7 million shots of the vaccine that had been distributed by that point. After extensive safety reviews, health officials in the United States and Europe said the benefits of the single-shot coronavirus vaccine far outweighed the risks of the rare blood clots.
He kept hearing those reports come up as a justification for not getting vaccinated, even months later. Doubts were piling higher as conspiracy theories and out-of-context news developments reinforced one another.
“A senior told me the other day, he said, ‘I told you, I told you. I was right. I’m not getting that vaccine. I’m not getting any of them,’” Ezequiel told Mayra. “Right now, La Familia Sana has a lot of credibility. We need to know how to use it.”
If these flames of fantasy had been whipped up from long-burning embers of distrust, Ezequiel thought, then perhaps the goodwill he, Mayra and the others had earned could be used to reach the hesitant.
“This campaign has to be door-to-door. It’s not going to work any other way,” Ezequiel said. “It’s not going to be information by radio, or on a flier. It has to be conversation by conversation.”
“After I got the vaccine, I felt all of the same things as when I had covid. All of the same pains. That’s part of why people are afraid, Ezequiel, because of that reaction. It hurts,” Mayra told him. “And we need to help people understand the reaction is normal, that it means it’s working, and that it’s not dangerous.”
“Did you talk to your dad yet? What did he say?” Ezequiel asked.
Mayra looked up. The flow of conversation halted slightly. Her parents were among the holdouts, refusing to get vaccinated because they heard that mass abortions were used to develop the vaccines, which was not true.
“They say they don’t want to. They don’t want to,” Mayra said.
“I have to respect them,” she added.
Later, she laughed at the irony that she was spending hours upon hours each day chasing people down to get them vaccinated, but she could not convince her parents at home.
“El buen juez por su casa empieza,” she said in Spanish.
A good judge begins in her own house.
* * *
Adan Meza and Socorro Meza Madera — Mayra’s parents — were not covid deniers. They knew people that had died of the virus. They wore masks and avoided crowds. Although he was 70, Adan still worked in the grape fields, pruning this time of year, and was grateful not to be in close quarters with others at work.
But they had heard on the Internet that stem cells and human embryos were key ingredients of the coronavirus vaccines. And so, as devout Catholics, they refused to get vaccinated.
“It’s a personal decision. I don’t feel well knowing that children have died for me to have the cure,” he said, wearing a teal surgical mask and two rosaries beneath his blue-and-yellow-plaid shirt. “All the vaccines have that material, the placenta and the embryos.”
“And so what I think sometimes is, why does a child have to die for me to live?” he added.
Adan said a priest had told him none of the vaccines were morally pure, although he would not say which priest. Asked which local churches he attended, he smiled knowingly: “All of them!”
How could Mayra argue with that? Mayra did not know how to parse the nuances of the lab-grown cell lines used to test or develop the vaccines.
The common cell lines used by some coronavirus vaccine developers for testing or manufacturing were grown in labs and are a staple in the development of many modern medicines. The lab-grown lines descend from cells gathered decades ago after several elective abortions. But cell lines and fetal tissue are different things. No pregnancies were terminated for the purpose of vaccine production. There are no embryonic materials or placenta in the vaccines.
When she mentioned to her dad that the Vatican was encouraging Catholics to get vaccinated, he said he felt Pope Francis was saying one thing but doing another. He would believe it when he saw a photo of the pope getting the vaccine himself, Adan said.
Privately, Adan said he believed in time his employer would require everyone to get vaccinated to continue working. He said he would get vaccinated then out of necessity. Mayra secretly hoped that day would come sooner rather than later. She wanted them to come to their own decision. But she also wanted them to be safe.
Mayra later relayed the conversation to Ezequiel, who had heard the faith-based concerns from others, too.
He resolved to get local religious leaders to help dispel these concerns among the faithful.
When Ezequiel could not get the local priest to call him back, he worked the phones to appeal directly to Bishop Robert Vasa of the Santa Rosa Diocese.
“Hi, Bishop Vasa? How are you?” Ezequiel said in a voice much sweeter than his usual one.
“Oh yes, yes, I’m doing very, very good. The reason I’m calling, we’re trying to vaccinate our people, and we could use your help,” he said. The voice on the other end of the phone was muffled and Mayra could not make out what was being said.
But later, Ezequiel told Mayra he had received a call from the local priest who agreed to join an event the coming weekend. He could give guidance to those with moral questions about the vaccines.
There would be doctors there, too, Ezequiel added. He had a plan worked out.
Between the priest and a doctor, Mayra knew who would be the more effective messenger.
* * *
Among the estimated 135,000 Sonoma County residents of Hispanic or Latino descent, only about 50,000 had been either partially or fully vaccinated as of early May, according to estimates by the Census Bureau and the county government. A La Familia Sana program this spring provided doses of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine to the community in Cloverdale.
Monday was food bank day at the Cloverdale Citrus Fairgrounds. For Mayra, Monday was an opportunity to try to sign up those who had previously expressed fears about the coronavirus vaccines and to follow up with those who had told her they were interested.
For 2½ hours she walked up and down the winding line of 200 cars that passed through the empty parking lot to the staged food-distribution tents. They were there for meal relief packages, big boxes of diapers, five-pound bags of carrots and potatoes, bread and butter.
With her yellow legal pad, Mayra was ready to take down names. As she spoke with them, all in Spanish, she handed out information about a free mobile clinic that would be coming through the food bank next week for blood pressure and blood sugar tests.
“How’d your vaccine appointment go? It was all right, right?” she said to one woman in a large, dark blue SUV. “Do you know anyone else who needs an appointment? You tell them to call me, okay?”
“Have you decided to get the vaccine yet?” she asked another in a worn, red pickup truck.
Many said that yes, that they had gotten their vaccines.
Many more said no.
Mayra told the ones who had not been vaccinated that there would be an event on Saturday, down the street, where they would be distributing vaccines to people who wanted them.
There would be a doctor there to walk them through any questions they had, including about fertility and how the vaccines were made.
And there would be a priest there, too.
A few asked which vaccine would be offered. They had finally decided to get vaccinated only to find themselves suddenly nervous about the Johnson & Johnson shot.
She assured them it would be the Moderna vaccine.
To those who remained unconvinced, she handed out her cellphone number and encouraged them to call her as soon as they changed their minds. She gave out her number more than 20 times.
“We have to talk about it more between us first,” one man said.
“My husband just won’t do it,” a woman told Mayra.
Mayra’s work would, by its nature, progress slowly. She had come to terms with that. A campaign like this one was not like evacuating a wildfire.
But slow did not mean fruitless.
People needed time.
And she needed to be ready for them once they did call. Mayra’s mom had decided a few weeks before that she would get vaccinated — only to change her mind before doing so, after a conversation with a priest.
Down the line of cars, another woman said she had been trying to convince her four kids to get vaccinated against the coronavirus despite the conspiracy theories about it leading to infertility. Now, finally one son said he was interested, but he was struggling to navigate the search for an appointment.
“You talk to him and tell him to call me on the phone to make a plan. Call me, okay? By Thursday or Friday. Wednesday is fine. Or even later. Or tomorrow,” Mayra said. “Thank you!”
After two hours of person-to-person check-ins, she had added 12 more people to her list.
By the end of the week, she and her team would have 60 additional people in for their first coronavirus vaccine shot.
It was short of the 100 vaccine doses they had secured. But they were 60 people who were safer because of their outreach. That was something.
Sunburns setting in, Mayra thought about reaching out to her dad. He was just getting home from the fields and he would be tired.
He needed to rest.
She needed to rest.
She did one more sweep down the line and stopped at the car of a tan, middle-aged man named Salvador.
“How about this. I’ll call you tomorrow, and you can tell me then?” she told him. “Or if you want, we can always talk another time.”
“And which one are you using? Because the Johnson & Johnson … ”
“We’re not using that one anymore. We’re using Moderna,” she interrupted. “Just think about it and let us know if you get up the courage. It’s fine either way, we respect what you decide.”
His face scrunched up like he was being timed.
He looked down at his phone. He looked out the passenger-side window to no one in particular.
“Take my number. We’ll see. We’ll think about it, and we’ll see,” he said. “I don’t know. We don’t know. We’ll see.”