MICOP Is Vital Link for Indigenous Communities During COVID

Nonprofit Serves 50,000+ Residents with 19 Programs in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties

Executive Director Arcenio Lopez and Associate Director Genevieve Flores-Haro | Credit: Courtesy

Mixteco Indigena Community Organizing Project (MICOP), much like the 29,000+ Indigenous residents of Santa Barbara and 21,000+ Indigenous residents of Ventura County that it serves, toils each day out of view of much of society, but it plays a vital role in assisting Indigenous communities, in COVID times and normal times.

The communities MICOP serves are primarily Mixteco, but there are small groups of Zapotecs, Purépecha, and other Indigenous groups as well. Most are farmworkers, and many live in Oxnard and Santa Maria and speak only their native language.

MICOP, with a $5 million budget (half of which comes from public sources) and a staff that is 80 percent Indigenous, has earned the trust of those it serves through 19 years of outreach and assistance in Ventura County. It began serving Santa Maria residents in 2017, opened a small office last year, and is presently expanding staff and services.

When COVID hit, MICOP functioned as the critical bridge between Indigenous residents and community resources. Its Oxnard offices began with wellness calls to clients to learn of their needs and provide immediate assistance. At the same time, staff were translating official health information into Indigenous languages and making the technical health information intelligible to its clients. This was challenging work, according to MICOP Associate Director Genevieve Flores-Haro, who noted that Mixteco does not even have a word for “virus.” Working with Ventura County’s Farmworker Resource Program, MICOP created informational videos, which it distributed through social media, Zoom calls, and its own radio station, Radio Indígena (94.1 FM and Facebook Live).

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At the start of COVID, MICOP’s Santa Maria office had a sole staff member focused on immigration and a small Census team. However, when the office learned of 15 Indigenous families with at least one member having COVID, it quickly connected them to community resources, including quarantine accommodations. The Santa Maria office has since grown to a staff of four and has immediate plans to hire more.

Santa Maria staff: Immigration Outreach Specialist Benito Camarillo, Community Organizer Fernando Martinez, Santa Maria Program Director Ana Huynh, Caseworker Ricardo Cruz, and Caseworker Francisca Camarillo | Credit: Courtesy

MICOP has worked to persuade farmworkers with symptoms to get tested. Not only do farmworkers not get sick days, according to Flores-Haro, but some employers warned employees that they or their entire crew would be fired if they tested positive. Farmworkers are at heightened risk for contracting COVID because of crowded living situations and shared transportation. They are at heightened risk for COVID complications because of comorbidity factors.

Among those who were ill, there was a reluctance to get treatment as well. To address cost concerns, MICOP advocated to both counties that they waive co-pays for COVID treatment, which the counties did.

MICOP has distributed 50,000 masks, including a large number of children’s ones. Its monthly distribution of culturally appropriate food in Ventura has continued throughout the pandemic, providing rice, beans, and other traditional food, along with diapers and PPE kits. 

MICOP’s Census teams in both counties helped Indigenous, undocumented residents understand that they should participate, despite President Trump’s efforts to put a citizenship question on the Census and a general fear of government. COVID complicated outreach efforts, leading MICOP to shift outreach from door-to-door to food distribution and other sites, as well as through social media and Radio Indígena. 

During COVID, in addition to the intensive COVID relief and Census outreach work, MICOP has continued most of its 19 programs in direct services, community organizing, and empowerment, with modifications where necessary. 

Among its more important ongoing programs, according to Flores-Haro, is its domestic violence programs. With the stay-at-home orders and increased stress brought on by the pandemic, there has been an increase in domestic violence incidents locally and across the nation. In Ventura, MICOP has both prevention and early intervention programs, which include acting as the bridge with Child Protective Services and social workers. In Santa Maria, domestic violence programming is slated to begin within the next year.

Mental-health programming also has taken on added importance in the pandemic, with anxiety and depression rising among all population groups. During COVID, culturally appropriate workshops in Ventura have moved online, with staff assisting clients unfamiliar with Zoom. Promotoras (community health workers) have stepped up wellness checks and, where needed, make referrals to other MICOP programs and county programs. When funding allows, this programming will be replicated in Santa Maria.

MICOP staff at distribution site, where food, diapers, and PPE packets are given out | Credit: Courtesy

Healing the Soul — a recent, innovative project funded by the State of California and Ventura County — used traditional Indigenous healing practices to alleviate symptoms associated with stress, anxiety, and depression. With an Indigenous-led research team and promotoras, last year the program served nearly 500 Indigenous residents with remedies such as healing saunas and herbal/spiritual cleansings. Further funding is being sought.

MICOP, along with Future Leaders of America (FLA) and CAUSE, founded the 805 Undocufund, which provided financial assistance to undocumented immigrants in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties after the Thomas Fire and 1/9 Debris Flow. The fund was resurrected during COVID and, under FLA”s leadership, has released $2.6 million to 2,543 families.

MICOP administered the State’s Disaster Relief Assistance for Immigrants (DRAI) program in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, which last spring provided a one-time $500 grant to 5,500 undocumented immigrants in the two counties (an estimated 100,000 undocumented immigrants live in the two counties). During the first week that MICOP had phone lines set up for the program, they received 130,000 calls to the Santa Barbara office and 150,000 calls to the Ventura County office. The lines crashed the first day but were up and running the next. All $2,750,000 received by the state was distributed before the end of June. The remaining estimated 94,500 immigrants received nothing.

Health Navigators Rosita Lopez and Lidia Lopez doing a show on Radio Indígena. | Credit: Courtesy

MICOP’s annual fundraiser, A Night in Oaxaca, went virtual this year, but this celebration of MICOP’s work and Indigenous culture once again was a highly informative and entertaining event. The passion of the speakers — frontline workers, MICOP leaders, boardmembers, donors, and community leaders and supporters — shined through. Interspersed with the speeches were vibrant dance performances by Las Chinas Oaxaquenas, comprising MICOP staff and volunteers, and by Los Elegidos de Asis and performances by soprano Maria Reyna.

In the program, Ventura County CEO Mike Powers lauded MICOP for its partnership with the county in many programs. Ventura County Community Foundation President and CEO Vanessa Bechtel thanked MICOP’s hardworking staff and volunteers and shared that “especially in times of COVID, I cannot imagine the community without MICOP.”

For more info or to make an online donation, go to https://mixteco.org.  To view Night in Oaxaca, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7OvSyW9J14Q.

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