COVID-19 news comes fast, furious and in English: How one woman is helping Lafayette’s Hispanic community stay informed

Cristina Martinez

It’s become a familiar scene: Our mayor and governor white knuckling the sides of their lecterns as they pause for the staccato clicks of the cameras. After deep breaths and before a short prayer, they deliver more bad news. 

Now, imagine you don’t understand a word they are saying.

Cristina Martinez is a 35-year-old event planner and former radio show host. She’s been moonlighting as a reporter for Telemundo Lafayette and El Sabor radio, attending Lafayette Consolidated Government’s coronavirus briefings and tuning into Gov. Edwards’ live streams.

She uses her notes to quickly turn around her own video report — this time in Spanish.

“We realized that there was nobody locally that was getting the message and putting it out there for the Hispanic community,” says Martinez. “They really don’t know what’s going on.”

According to a recent Pew Research Center report, Latinos are more likely to say the COVID-19 outbreak is a major threat to their personal health and financial situation. That’s without the increased stress of a language barrier or fear of law enforcement.

“My concern is that they will not get the proper treatment because they’re afraid,” says Martinez. “You don’t think about it because you haven’t been in that situation. Imagine you’re someone who just came to the U.S. — it’s not just Spanish; it’s any immigrant — they are scared.”

Even when those with limited English proficiency make it to hospitals, they face higher risks for health complications compared to fluent speakers, according to an article in the Journal of Hospital Medicine. The most recent U.S. Census survey reports more than 7% of people registered as Louisiana residents speak a language other than English at home, and the majority of them speak Spanish.

Martinez says her goal with the video clips she posts to Facebook is simply to translate the message from local officials. She makes it a point to communicate the daily case numbers and any new restrictions. She also tries to ask questions on behalf of the Latino community at the LCG press conferences, which on occasion, have been met by pauses taut with uncertainty.

“You’ve been saying you needed an ID. Would you consider another’s country’s passport an ID?” says Martinez, recalling one of her recent questions. 

Martinez says she doesn’t blame local officials for some oversight, and points to positives, such as Spanish translators available to those who call 311 or visit the Cajundome screening site.

Jamie Angelle, LCG Chief Communications officer, says the COVID-19 website includes a Spanish translation, and they are working to update it with as much information as possible. Anyone looking to get pre-screened over the phone can call the local 311 number and request a translator by speaking with an operator, although there is sometimes a wait before a translator becomes available, he notes. Although there isn’t currently a Spanish-language prompt on the 311 answering service, Angelle says it’s something they will look into providing going forward.

Angelle says LCG originally attempted to provide a translated briefing following each news conference, but broadcast networks did not give them air time. That’s when they reached out to Delta Media to ask for help getting the message out to the local Latino community. 

Delta Media, which also owns El Sabor, Lafayette’s only commercial Hispanic radio station, launched Telemundo in January. The sub-channel is the only Spanish-language network in the Lafayette area. It’s been available via antenna on station 50.3 since February and on Channel 19 to all Cox cable subscribers in the DMA since April 1. Martinez says she hopes her reporting lays the groundwork for an official Spanish newscast on the TV sub-channel. But for now, her social media posts are making an impact.

Martinez’s video recaps have received thousands of views on El Sabor’s Facebook page, and she regularly receives messages and calls from viewers with follow-up questions. She says a few topics that have resonated include information on how to report price gouging and eviction issues. Martinez credits the effectiveness of the reports to her ability to quickly translate the news and then amplify the message through El Sabor’s established social media audience.

In addition to sharing news, Martinez says she wants the Lafayette Latino community to know people are available to help them, and even if they are living here without legal permission, they’re not going to be targeted for seeking medical help.

“Not everyone is here to judge,” she says. “Lafayette is a great town. Everyone is pulling through this together.”

Martinez says she has appreciated the support of Mayor-President Josh Guillory and other journalists as she took on this new role — although she admits she did feel a little intimidated at her first press conference.

“My first language is Spanish,” says Martinez. “I was looking at the other reporters, and I was thinking, ‘that’s a really long phrase, that’s a really long question. I cannot do that.’”

Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Venezuela, Martinez has lived in Lafayette for the past 11 years. Her daughter, now 6, was born here.

“She’s a little Cajun baby,” says Martinez. “She loves crawfish and says ‘ya’ll.’”

Martinez, who is still working her event planning job from home and caring for her daughter who is off of school, says she will continue to help with the coronavirus reports as long as it’s helpful. But she’s not giving up her day job for a reporting career any time soon.

“I’m not trying to impress anybody,” she says. “I just want to get this information out there. If I can get a couple of people to understand the message, I’ve done it.”