By Iridian Casarez
We had just finished eating our plates of mole Poblano and rice when my abuelita began telling us of her recent month-long trip to Mexico. She began by showing us videos of her house, freshly remodeled and furnished. She told us about the chiles ahogadas and the feast she and three of her siblings ate the night before she left. Then, she told us about how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted our family.
She said our family in Mexico didn’t trust the vaccine, didn’t want to get them, believing in all of the conspiracy theories circulating through social media. I rolled my eyes, annoyed. How could anyone believe such irrational things?
But then my abuelita said she told her family that she had received her vaccine (something she was also extremely hesitant to do) and they were shocked and surprised. She then explained it to them like this:
“It’s as if the doctors inject you with a spider without legs and it enters your body to tell your body to be ready. So that when and if the virus enters your body, it’s ready to attack and fight the virus off,” she told them, adding that she got sick briefly after her second dose but that was it. And with that, she was able to convince three of her siblings to get their COVID-19 vaccines.
I don’t remember a time in my childhood when my parents or grandparents understood how bio-medicine works, not because of any particular reason but because we always had our own cultural home remedies to rely on, like Vick’s Vapor Rub and herbal teas for colds and flus, a cleanse using an egg for the evil eye when you unexpectedly get sick (my abuelita had just finished cleansing my aunt before I went to visit) and a burnt and crushed avocado seed in oil for indigestion, among others.
In the case of vaccines, they didn’t understand how they protect you. To be honest, I never truly did either, not until recently.
So hearing my abuelita explain how she understood the COVID-19 vaccine to work, I was extremely surprised and impressed. It was a great explanation. I asked her how she found it and she pointed to my mom. I looked at my mom and asked the same question.
“Well, you,” she said.
It took some time for my mom to get her vaccine. She works for a foster agency in Los Angeles County and therefore had been offered it in early February, before state eligibility reached her age group. But she didn’t want it. To her, it felt unnecessary. She told herself that she was a healthy adult who’d followed all of the COVID-19 precautions when she went to get groceries or worked in the office, wearing a mask and distancing herself from others.
At the time, I wasn’t sure what my family’s stance was on getting vaccinated, whether they were for or against it, so I was scared to ask. But I needed to know.
I methodically brought it up during our weekly catch-ups and said how excited I was to get my vaccine with the hope of a return to normalcy and then slowly asked if she was planning on getting hers. There was a silence on the other end, a pause that sank my stomach. Then I heard the hesitation in her voice. “Um, I don’t think I’m going to get it,” she said.
I hadn’t realized how upset I would be if she said she wasn’t getting the vaccine. I wasn’t prepared at all. After reading all the COVID stories locally and the extreme outbreaks in LA (especially after the holiday season), I was worried. Confused. A bit irate. I didn’t want to lose my mom to this deadly virus. I immediately began demanding answers as to why.
The more we talked about it, the more I realized that she didn’t really understand how the vaccine worked, how and why it was developed so quickly and why it was so important for her to do her part to protect her neighbors by getting vaccinated.
So I told her what I knew and gave her the example she then gave to my abuelita (albeit tailored for a better understanding), that the vaccine has just one part of the virus and that part tells your body to recognize and fight against the COVID-19 virus if you get exposed.
I didn’t want her to just take my word for it (although she did) so I also sent her an email filled with links to COVID news articles and videos in Spanish, including some of Spanish-speaking doctors talking about how the COVID vaccines work. I figured that hearing scientific information in your preferred language gives a better understanding, and I didn’t know what other sources of information in Spanish she’d found.
The Thursday after we spoke, she got her first dose.
Don’t get me wrong, my mom could have easily understood the science behind the vaccine. It might have taken her some time, but she could have done it. Yet for as long as I can remember, I’ve always been a trustworthy source for finding information for my mom.
This moment with my abuela and my mom reminds me of something Humboldt County Public Health Officer Ian Hoffman has said, that it sometimes takes just one person to talk about their experience of getting vaccinated to make a vaccine hesitant person get theirs, and he isn’t wrong.
During a recent webinar about COVID-19 vaccinations, Katheryn Houghton, a Montana correspondent for Kaiser Health News, spoke about a Montana resident who didn’t trust Anthony Fauci or other federal officials urging people to take their vaccines. He did, however, trust one of his high school classmates who’d become a doctor. Houghton said the man called his classmate to ask about his thoughts on the vaccine and when they were done talking went to get his vaccine.
It just takes one person to help another understand what this vital protection can do. I was my mom’s and my mom was my abuelita’s, and my abuelita was her siblings’.
It was a ripple effect, one that’ll protect my family.
Iridian Casarez (she/her) is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @IridianCasarez.