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'Come on Papi, La Vacuna!': A New Arts Campaign Aims to Boost Vaccination Rates in San Joaquin Valley

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A group of artists, all dressed in colorful gear, pose for a photo.
Juan Felipe Herrera and his former students performing for an ACTAVANDO Contra COVID event at the Madera Flea Market on June 13, 2021. (Courtesy of Jenn Emerling/ACTA)

"Together, so many years," writes Juan Felipe Herrera, former U.S. poet laureate, in his recent poem "Tantos Años Juntos," created to encourage farmworkers to get vaccinated.

"I do not want you to leave my side."

Herrera has performed this poem at events throughout the Central Valley as part of a new cultural campaign called ACTAvando Contra COVID that is bringing songs, poems and radio dramas to farmworkers and other Spanish-speaking audiences. It's a collaboration between the Alliance for California Traditional Arts (ACTA) and Radio Bilingüe, the national Latino public radio network.

"Take the vaccine, I do not want you to leave my side," the poem continues. "Nothing is stronger than our family and our love."

A person wearing a hat reads a poem and smiles in an open-air space.
Juan Felipe Herrera, former poet laureate of the United States, performs with Los Originarios del Plan at the Madera Flea Market on June 13, 2021. (Courtesy of Jenn Emerling/ACTA.)

Since the beginning of the pandemic, farmworkers throughout the Central Valley have been hard hit by COVID infections.

"The farmworkers had to be out there," said Hugo Morales, executive director and co-founder of Radio Bilingüe. "Because they had to eat, they had to feed their families. They had to earn an income. Many of them are undocumented, so there was essentially no assistance for them."

But the vaccination rate among farmworkers still lags far behind the rest of the state.

Nearly 60% of Californians are fully vaccinated, but health experts warn that some regions, like the San Joaquin Valley, still have dramatically low vaccination rates. In Kings County, for example, nearly three-quarters of Latino residents have yet to get a shot.

One of the key challenges for boosting vaccinations rates has been the spread of misinformation on social media platforms.

Morales explains that the historic mistreatment of migrant workers has led to a mistrust of Western medicine — like when migrants who arrived as part of the Bracero program in the 1950s and 1960s were sprayed with DDT.

"Unfortunately, [misinformation] plays on the fears," he said. "There's a history there that is very concrete."

But Morales and the other organizers of the campaign hope that art can help address these concerns.

Along with Herrera, ACTA has commissioned other celebrated artists, like Carmencristina Moreno, known as the Chicana First Lady of Song, who has written original works encouraging vulnerable communities like farmworkers to stay safe by utilizing face masks, washing their hands and getting vaccinated.

The campaign is also relying on musicians with deep ties to the immigrant community, like Leonel Mendoza Acevedo. His acoustic string ensemble, Los Originarios del Plan, has roots in the Mexican state of Michoacán.

"When we talked about what kind of song would they compose for this, Leonel immediately said, 'We should we should use the form of a Valona,' " said Amy Kitchener, ACTA's executive director. "It's like lyric poetry, for expressing social concerns."

A band, including a pair of violinists, a harpist and a guitarist, perform on a stage.
Los Originarios del Plan perform at the Madera Flea Market on June 13, 2021. (Courtesy of Jenn Emerling/ACTA.)

Mendoza thought it was really important to use the very traditional form from his area because it was a way to call his community into action. "When people hear the Valona, they know I'm talking to them," he said.

"We were all hit by the pandemic, with the death of two good friends," added Mendoza. "We know how important it is to get vaccinated and we don’t want any more deaths. The longer it takes for us to all get vaccinated, death may be waiting for us around the corner.”

Meanwhile, artists like Grupo Recreación Musical are increasing messaging to Spanish and Mixteco-speaking communities by writing and composing songs in both languages.

"One of the communities that is most vulnerable to this pandemic has been the Indigenous community," said Morales, a Mixteco immigrant himself who pioneered radio programming in Indigenous languages spoken in Mexico.

"Those that are dying under the age of 50 are often Mexican-Americans and Indigenous people," he said. "So it's not over for the essential workers."

A small child gets tested for COVID-19 by a nurse.
A child being tested for COVID-19 during an ACTAvando Contra COVID event at the Madera Flea Market on June 13, 2021. Visitors could get tested and sign up for vaccines while musicians played. (Courtesy of Jenn Emerling/ACTA.)

Radio drama is another tool artists are using to to get the word out.

Former Poet Laureate Herrera wrote and directed "¡Vacúnate Prudencio!," a radio drama inspired by a weekly radio-comedy program from the 1930s called "La Familia Feliz" in Ciudad Juárez.

"The style is similar to Teatro Campesino, and farmworkers’ theater," said Herrera. "A beautiful form, because it is so familiar, funny, exaggerated and real all at the same time."

"It’s for the people. With all our love. The actors are from the San Joaquin Valley, my former students. It is an embrace for our communities.”

The story follows Prudencio, a father and husband who refuses to get vaccinated out of pride.

"He's fairly sure that he's so strong," Kitchener from ACTA explained. "He's strong like iron and like a tree, like he's not going to need the vaccine. So his son in middle school comes in and starts to urge him [to get vaccinated] based on his information."

"Come on papi, la vacuna! Just a shot in the arm and a cool mask, dad," says Prudencio's son in the story. "Tenemos que usarla, papi."


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