Erika Guadalupe started her new job as executive director of Juntos in mid-March, just days before Philadelphia’s stay-at-home order went into effect.
The immigrant rights organization had long been a haven for Guadalupe, who came to the United States undocumented from Mexico. Bryn Mawr College brought her to the Philadelphia area, but it was through Juntos that the visual artist and cultural organizer found a sanctuary six years ago.
Since then, Guadalupe, 29, has served in various roles for the group.
“When I came here, I looked for spaces to be in community with folks who understood my experience,” said Guadalupe. “I wanted to secure that sense of community and healing for others.”
Juntos, based in South Philly, has traditionally focused on activism, but has had to shift priorities during the pandemic to providing direct services. Nationwide, the Latino unemployment rate in April hit a record-high 18.9%, higher than any other ethnic group’s.
According to a report released by the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, census data from 2018 showed that nearly 40% of the city’s Latino population is living in poverty. Latinos make up 14% of Philadelphians and are overrepresented in essential-worker roles.
Guadalupe said many of the community members Juntos serves — disproportionately working in the hospitality and restaurant industry, or as domestic workers — were experiencing job loss and hours cuts even before the coronavirus hit.
Figuring out how Juntos could best respond to the need Guadalupe was seeing in the immigrant and undocumented community became her priority.
“I don’t necessarily think people need to come to Juntos because they want to be at a protest,” she said. “I want Juntos to be a place that honors the whole person, and not just these parts of ourselves that we have to fight so hard for people to see. It was a decisive moment for our organization. I realized that we can’t do campaigns unless our people are taken care of.”
The first step was to launch a phone bank, and the organization recruited 100 volunteers to call 2,000 community members. On each call, interviewers attempted to assess the employment situation, food security, and existing medical issues or possible coronavirus symptoms, and how children in the home were coping with the pandemic.
In its first week, Guadalupe said, Juntos reached 300 people, of whom 80% reported either they or someone living with them had lost a job, and 70% were unsure of where they were going to get money for groceries in the coming week.
Public relief services were quickly running out as needs across the city rose. And what was in some food boxes was often unfamiliar to the Latino community, Guadalupe explained.
The first week of May, Juntos started its own care package program. On Mondays, volunteers deliver boxes of food — including an assortment of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as Latin staples like beans, rice, spices, stock, and masa, used to make tortillas — as well as household items like toothpaste, dish soap, laundry detergent, and feminine hygiene products. Also included are art supplies for children.
“We wanted to be a comfort in some way during a disorienting time,” Guadalupe said, adding that delivering the boxes is intentional for a community that is more likely to work outside the home.
“Domestic workers, for example, are shopping for other families,” she said. “We’re trying to minimize how much they’re out of the house. We’re at a higher risk.… This is how we care for each other.”
Philadelphia is scheduled to move to the less-restrictive “yellow” phase on Friday, but Guadalupe said Juntos plans to expand its direct services, as she believes the need will remain. The group could begin providing cash assistance and recently hired its first community liaison to connect people with resources.
“We only really ever had organizers on staff,” Guadalupe said. “We’re planning for the long haul. I’m hopeful that at least we have a framework for how to keep moving forward vs. being paralyzed if the city ends up shutting down or if another crisis hits. When the city reopens, I don’t think our community is going to be able to bounce back from this very quickly, but we’re going to be that much more mobilized to respond.”