Dr. Miriam Vega Posdcast Interview with anthropologist Aaron Dabbah

Interviewer:  Welcome to our January podcast.  My name is Aaron Dabbah, anthropologist and blogger, and I’m here with Dr. Miriam Vega of the Latino Commission on AIDS, discussing a publication released this week entitled “The State of Latinos in the Deep South: Being Visible by Piercing the Stigma Veil”.  We all know that Latinos are now the nation’s largest and fastest growing minority group, with a population increasing from 9.5 million in 1970 to over 53 million in 2012, projected to reach 129 million by 2060.  Just as it is a mistake to assume all Latinos are the same, it is a mistake to assume that the lived experience of Latinos is the same across the country.  Dr. Vega has recently conducted an ethnographic assessment of the State of Latinos in the Deep South, highlighting a region that has not often been closely associated with Latinos.  Welcome, Dr. Vega, and please tell us what led to your latest report.

Dr. Vega:  Thank you and greetings to the listeners.  Our last report on Latinos in the Deep South was released in December 2008.  At that time, Latinos were considered an “emerging” population in the South.  Now fast forward five few years later and we’ve had several large events that have put a spotlight on Latinos in the South that we felt necessitated a follow up assessment.

Interviewer:  And what were those events?

Dr. Vega:  Right after 2008, the U.S. and the world were in a recession.  Economies were stagnant.  Jobs were lost and people were moving around, looking for a better life.  The southern region saw population increases. Then, in 2010, the latest U.S. census data was released, highlighting the fact that Latinos were the largest minority group in the country.  At the time, they were 16% of the population.  Today in 2015 they are near 18%.  That’s fast growth.  And let me clearly note: It has little do with undocumented immigration.  And what’s even faster is the Hispanic growth in the Deep South. Consider, Georgia.  They saw a 108% increase in Latinos, which now represent 9% of the Georgia population.  Add to this the passage and rollout of healthcare reform, where millions have indeed enrolled in health insurance, however there are still millions that have not.  Many are Latinos.  Specifically, 25% of those who remain uninsured are Latino. And particularly Latinos in the Deep South, leaving them extremely vulnerable and at times unable to access or find available healthcare.  On top of which, despite the fact that in 2010 the first  ever US National HIV Strategy was announced what we have seen is that the largest growth in HIV incidence rates are in the south.  The Deep South only represents a third of the U.S. population, but nearly 50% of all new cases of HIV infection are in the Deep South. One troubling trend for Latinos is that they tend to be “late testers,” meaning that within a year of diagnosis of HIV, they are also diagnosed with AIDS. And then there is immigration.

Interviewer:  How does immigration play a role?

Dr. Vega:  It’s a strange juxtaposition.  All the Deep South states saw substantial increases in Latino population, but states like Alabama and South Carolina also passed some of the strictest immigration laws in the country, many modelled after Arizona’s 2010 law SB 1070.  Across the country, 164 anti-immigration laws were passed by state legislatures between 2010 and 2011 leading to a marked Latino identity. So much so that there is now the phenomena of driving while brown.   What’s clear is that as we recover from the recession, the South is growing, and Latino’s are a part of that, but in a complex socio-political climate of economic fears, huge changes in healthcare, and immigration reform.

Interviewer: What are the three most important take away messages from your recent investigation in the Deep South?

Dr. Vega: First, Latinos are no longer invisible in the Deep South.  Second, even though they have essentially “emerged”, they continue to be stigmatized in day to day life and through institutional policies, and third, there is a hidden “Latino Tax”.

Interviewer:  What is the “Latino Tax?”

Dr. Vega: Imagine you’re a medical accountant in Alabama.  You also happen to be Latino.  Your job may not involve patient interaction.  Yet routinely you may be called upon to assist healthcare staff with Spanish translation.  Community organizations often don’t include budget lines for translation services, and simply figure they will rely on the few Spanish-speakers employed.  Community workers in the Deep South report being called in for anything from missing person and rape cases, to births in parking lots, to translating brochures, simply because they are Latino.  The idea of a “Latino Tax” is that there is a high demand on your time and social capital, particularly if you are bilingual. While it’s a burden, it a burden that many willingly carry because they want to do good for their community.  There’s a high sense of altruism among Latino’s in the Deep South.

Interviewer:  What needs do you see going forward?

Dr. Vega:  There is a need for Latino leadership to be cultivated.  They’re in the Deep South, and civil rights is an undercurrent.  Concerted efforts need to be made to partner with the African-American communities, who have paved the way.  We need to honor their expertise and experience, and help them recognize that Latinos are in the midst of their own civil rights struggle.  Most importantly, Latinos need to vote.  People are waiting for them to awaken and show up at the polls, and they just haven’t. Maybe 2016 will be the year.

Interviewer: Thank you Dr. Vega.  For more information, the full report on The State of Latinos in the Deep South can be accessed through the Latino Commission on AIDS website at www.latinoaids.org.

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