When the Vaccine Skeptic Is Your Dad

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S1: Gustavo Arellano writes for the L.A. Times, and when I was reading his column the other day, I learned a new word, pendejo. Can you translate it for me?

S2: Oh, Bandele is the Mexican version of a covariate.

S1: A covariate? Yeah, like a covid idiot.

S2: Yeah, like a complete idiot that that word’s been around it. So it’s a portmanteau of pandemic, which, of course we know what a pandemic is. And medical, which technically in Spanish means a pubic hair.

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S1: Oh no.

S2: And Mexican. Spanish, it means a dumb ass more than anything. Like you can say the word on the air, but you really shouldn’t think it’s a rude word. But at the same time, it’s also not like, you know, like the F word or other bad words like that. So to me, I’m like, this is the perfect word to use against the people who are driving me the most insane nowadays, which is to say Latinos who still believe coronaviruses, not a thing.

S1: Gustavo says this with equal parts frustration and affection because he’s got a lot of love for the Ponderosa in his own life. Like his dad, Gustavo calls him the

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S2: king of the fundamentals.

S1: Why do you say that?

S2: Well, let’s see. Let’s start off by what did he think of coronaviruses? He didn’t think it was real. He then thought it was a government conspiracy. He also said actually that we all had coronavirus. We all were born with it. So sometimes it flares up and sometimes it doesn’t.

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S1: So born with it, that’s a new one. I’ve never heard

S2: it. Oh, well, you know, you have to hang out with more Mexicans then, because that was obviously a thing for some of them. Like my dad,

S1: getting his father to take the coronavirus seriously has been a year long project for Gustavo. So when he finally got his dad vaccinated earlier this month, it felt like a victory. Gustavo published a picture of his dad grinning under his mask, one shot closer to immunity. The headline, My dad was a covid-19 skeptic, but he got vaccinated and so can your pantyhose.

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S2: Here’s the king of the bun that was telling everyone I was wrong. I’m throwing away my crown and I want everyone to follow in my footsteps. And if me, who was the worst of the worst, can do it, then none of you can have any excuse about

S1: today on the show. All of us have at least one pundit in our lives. So what can the rest of us learn from the way Gustavo broke through to his father? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us. Can you introduce me to your dad?

S2: Where do you want to start? He’s a Mexican hillbilly like him and my mom. They grew up in tiny villages in the mountains of a state called Zacatecas, which is like north central north Mexico, but towards the central part. So poor, these are poor, poor places. My dad was one of eight kids, the youngest of eight. And my dad also, though, by his own admission, he was very stubborn and very macho, even as a kid. Hmm.

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S1: When did he come to the states?

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S2: A 1968 in the trunk of a Chevy along with two other men. One was his cousin, another one was a stranger. And just to show you how much things have changed, they each paid hippie chick from Huntington Beach and her Botterill or her Mexican-American boyfriend 50 bucks so they could cross them over from the Juwana into into the United States, the Border Patrol agent, because he saw a hippie girl from Huntington Beach driving a big Chevy, just waved them along. And so he came over to the country. Simple as that. So he would have been 18 years old at the time because my dad’s going to be seventy one or seventy this year.

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S1: When did you first realize how your dad was feeling about covid? Like, was it back in the spring?

S2: You know, I’ll take you back, Baj. I’m coming back in from El Paso. I was on assignment for the Los Angeles Times. And now coronavirus is basically starting to bubble up. And just like, you know, just like anyone other guy’s not a real thing. Like, I don’t like, oh, please. It’s like people we that’s it’s just going to be another flu then when it starts getting more serious. Oh, I don’t need a mask. What mask. How is a mask going to stop anything. I don’t need to wash my hands. How like how are my hands. Like how is washing hands going to do anything. I was one of those. I’m going to be completely honest with you. I was one of those. The reason I got religion really quickly was because as a reporter, of course, you start reporting these stories. Well, yeah, yeah. It is a real thing. So now take my dad. He’s retired. All of a sudden he can no longer go to the senior center to play pool with his friends. All of a sudden he’s told he can’t even hang out. He cannot even hug his own grandchild. He can not congregate with any family members. Your entire world has been flipped upside down. You’re already macho and stubborn and country to begin with. Of course, you’re not going to believe coronaviruses a thing and you’re going to believe it’s an annoyance created specifically to antagonize you and you alone.

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S1: You’re saying it makes a kind of sense?

S2: Well, it does make sense a lot. Again, I was one of those people

S1: Gustavo’s dad first started really worrying about covid when friends and family started passing away back in July. A cousin his dad had been especially close with, Tacho, died. This cousin had driven himself to the hospital one day, gotten a covid diagnosis, and then steadily got worse until he passed. Premo Tacho had no immediate family in California, so it felt a Gustavo’s father to sort out his cousins estate. That meant going to the hospital, claiming the body and also Tojo’s belongings, including that car he’d used to drive himself in.

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S2: And that’s what the hospital said. Like you’re going to have to wear this suit to get his material. We’re going to put it in a bag. Here’s his car. Here’s the keys. We recommend that you spray it down, you wipe it down. And my. Wow. Yeah. Oh, yeah.

S1: I can’t imagine that happening. And not just feeling overwhelmed by it. Is that how your dad felt or was he sort of trying to toughen up?

S2: Threw it at my my dad’s matter of fact. So I honestly like because I drove them up to the hospital in Northridge where Tacho had passed away because, you know, my dad was going to drive the car back and, you know, he sat like I was waiting for him. He came out and I, you know, I had to go somewhere. So I’m like, can we go now? That is like, no, like help me spray this car down. I had a mask on already. We put on, you know, he gave me some gloves on. Yeah. We just wiped it down as much as possible. And the car had been there for two weeks, so I had to give it a jump start. So I think my dad just like, you know, fight or flight mode for him. It was a fight. It wasn’t a fight. I’m rejecting coronaviruses like I have a job to do. So I’ve got to deal with my own emotions in my own mind later on. Right now, I just need to get you know, I need to settle things.

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S1: Yeah. You get to work and you roll down the windows of the car and you give it a jumpstart and you do what you need to do.

S2: Yeah, not totally.

S1: Was this is premature death, was that a moment where he started to rethink some of his beliefs?

S2: I would hope so. He started wearing the mask indoors after that, for sure. And he started and that’s when I started noticing he had hand sanitizer in his cars. He definitely didn’t have that before. But, you know, but it’s not like it stopped him from going out, trying to visit people when I even though people are trying to tell him to do stuff, it was a gradual chipping away from the complete skeptic at the very beginning, going slowly throughout the year to just getting a little bit more careful, a little bit more careful. Then eventually more people from the Rancho, from, you know, from his village of home will feel they started getting it. People started passing away from it. It started dying on him. Yeah, maybe this is real. But still, again, he has that macho streak in him. So it’s like, OK, might be real, but it’s not going to affect me.

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S1: Yeah, I mean, I read that just even in the last couple of months, local health officials were saying that the covid rate in the Latino community has gone up a thousand percent, which it’s an almost unfathomable number.

S2: Yeah, it’s horrific. It’s horror is so horrible. This not that anyone deserves to die from this pandemic, of course, but the fact that the people who can least afford to be affected by it, working class Latinos who are frontline workers. You know, I wrote a piece for The Atlantic talking about how there are three things that Latinos we I mean, among many things, but three things that Latinos pride ourselves on, multigenerational households, large social networks that we’re always partying or going to people’s houses all the time. And our blue collar status,

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S1: it’s like a recipe for Kova.

S2: It’s our Achilles heel now when it comes to cover. And this is why it has destroyed us so much in the way that it has so far. And then add to that add to that the PUNDAK was that, you know, that blows it up to an even another level. And that’s what makes it so frustrating and maddening to not just myself, but some so many people who are there trying to basically rescue Latinos from this.

S1: When we come back, Gustavo’s father finally gets the vaccine,

S2: if we just left it to the government, you would have never done any of this. It had to be family members who kept pushing him and also people that he knew that kept dying, that finally convinced them like this is important. I need to do this.

S1: So when a vaccine became available, did your dad immediately want it?

S2: Oh, no, of course not. I remember, like, you know, he cell phones were still conspiracy minded, even me to this day. Various things, of course. But, you know, the vaccine starts. Of course, they’re saying it’s going to be for people over 65. So my sisters, they’re like, we got to get you know, we got to get our dad to get the vaccine. We told him my dad, that’s when he died like that. I don’t need it. Like, you know, they’re saying that’s going to kill you. They’re saying there’s a chimp there saying everything that I said earlier, I don’t need that strong blood. And I have a positive outlook on life.

S1: Gustavo’s father’s attitude wasn’t the only thing standing in his way actually signing up for the vaccine that was difficult to wear. Gustavo and his father live in Orange County. You have to download an app to get your name on the vaccine list. The problem is Gustavo, his father doesn’t own a smartphone, so the task of signing him up fell to Gustavo.

S2: Sister, you have to log on. You have to download this app and then you have to basically try to make an appointment if the app wasn’t crashing and just hope so. She did. She did that and they said, OK, your dad’s going to have an appointment in a month, which were like, oh, God, like, we need to get this in him as much as possible. And we told them, yeah, we’re going to do it. And I think he didn’t believe it was going to happen. I was like, yeah, yeah, yeah. And then something happened on Instagram. I don’t know. I think it was in an Albertson’s through CVS Pharmacy. So I don’t know how this worked out, but it wasn’t a county thing. But they like on Instagram, she saw, hey, we’re going to have one day only on a Saturday vaccines for, you know, people who are eligible in in Anaheim and Santana. Those are the two cities are by far the most affected cities in Orange County. They’re the largest cities. There are Latino majority cities and they’re getting devastated by it. So by some miracle of God, my sister saw it. She just basically refreshed and refreshed and refreshed. But within half an hour, she was able to make a booking for the next day. And that’s the thing. Like it popped up on a Friday. She made it. And the vaccination was going to be on Saturday. We told my dad, hey, dad, we’re by the way, are you OK? I got a love akuna that I’m going to take. You get the vaccine tomorrow. And I think he was so shocked that he’s like, OK, you know, like hanging out with me anyway, socially, just with mask, of course. But he’s like, OK, then just left it at that.

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S1: OK, a couple of things stand out about that story, which is, first of all, how much time your sister had to invest in trying to figure out how to get your dad a vaccine, but then also the randomness of it and the fact that it relies on a real familiarity with all kinds of technology and luck because you just happened to be on Instagram and see, oh, I can go tomorrow.

S2: Yeah, no, the vaccine is a vaccine of privilege. Let’s let’s be clear about that, especially the way it’s rolling out in California. You have to do it online. For weeks there was only English. There was no Spanish. Translation if you’re 65 and older, and especially if you’re an immigrant, like more likely than not, you’re not going to be the most social media fluent of people. That’s, you know. And so not only do you need somebody who can you can rely on to translate any Internet stuff for you, you also need someone who’s going to have a job that allows them to be on social media nonstop. My sister is a teacher, so obviously her schedule is completely all over the place. But she was able to she we have that privilege. Even though we are the children of Mexican immigrants, we have that privilege to be able to have done that. And even then, it was still the luck of the draw that my sister randomly solved is actually a friend of her, told her about this Instagram post. So she was able to do it immediately and then, you know, was able to wait for half an hour. That’s not everyone. I really do believe it is an act of God or at least God has a weird sense of humor because he’s like, you know what, Gustavo? I want you to do a really funny column about your dad. So I’m going to allow this to happen to you.

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S1: So you got in the car, took your dad with you to go to Albertson’s and get the vaccine. When you showed up, what did you see? Because you said that, you know, these these pop up vaccine sites, they were in neighborhoods that are primarily Latino. Right.

S2: So I go there and this Albertson’s and I, it was almost all white people or it was almost all non Mexicans, like super majority white Asians and very, very, very few Latinos. And very tellingly, most of the non Latinos, they were there by themselves. They’re wielding smartphones than the Latinos who were there. They were accompanied by their children. Sometimes they’re teenagers, sometimes they’re adults like myself. And I had never felt so Mexican because my dad comes wearing cowboy boots and, you know, and this Petkov, that’s way over side, you could tell it’s not his. And he’s wearing like, you know, worn out baseball. Cap me. I’m showing up in my baggy dickey shorts and watches like Mexican sandals. So but the fact is. As so many white people, even Santtana in Anaheim, and here we are, I had not felt so consciously Mexican like quote unquote Mexican, I had to remember. And I think the last time that happened was one time when some guy at a swap meet was racist towards my dad. And that was the last time I had felt so Mexican. It was like it was it was disturbing and amazing at the same time.

S1: Yeah, I was reading about vaccine disparities in L.A., how Latino residents are so much less likely to have gotten the shot. And I wonder how your experience with your dad makes you think about that differently. I mean, the L.A. public health director has been saying, OK, we need to send vaccine doses to smaller clinics. Is that the solution? You see like do you see something, having been with your dad, that is an easy solution that we’re just not executing?

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S2: Yeah, you cannot have the way we have it right now, which is I mean, it’s the epitome of the disparities and having people download an app, you’re assuming that they have a smartphone. You’re assuming that they have a cell phone to begin with, and that’s the only way to do it. That’s criminal. The super size where the you know, the waits are hours long or, you know, you have to have transportation to do so. Not everyone is going to have transportation. Not everyone is going to be able to, you know, take the day off from work and especially with Latinos, if so many of us have blue collar jobs and our front line work is that you cannot replicate at home. So you’re gonna have to take a day off to do this. So you should be going to these communities there are especially affected. You should be. This is the thing like I do criticize a lot boundaryless because I think they do need to be criticized, but they’re not the reason. They are not a majority of Latinos, not even close attendances are there. But in terms of practice, not even close. There’s a lot of Latinos who would want to take the vaccine, but they just can’t because it’s so hard for them and their their life situation to be able to do so. Since they are the most affected community, then we should be going out there in collaboration with the community leaders, specifically in the health and the health department, and figure out a way to make it happen.

S1: Part of how Gustavo made his own dad comfortable with his new vaccine was by reminding him how modern medicine had already changed their lives for the better. Smallpox had been the scourge of his father’s village. Growing up, getting the smallpox vaccine had changed his father’s life.

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S2: He has the old school smallpox scar that is like didn’t take this weird indentation that as a kid, I always wonder, like, what is that? Because I don’t have it. And my mom had it as well. And then my mom and my dad would never want to talk about it. My mom explained it to me like that’s what I like. That’s what that vaccine did. But that and so when I told my dad, it’s like, look, medicine is not a bad thing, like when people do medicine. Yeah. There’s been problems over this over the decades, especially United States, especially, you know, with communities of color. But at the end, medicine is not a bad thing. And if people if there’s something that can eradicate a pathogen or in this case, a pandemic, we need to do it. We need to do it as much as possible.

S1: It stood out to me that you spent so much time trying to convince your dad to show up for this vaccine to take covid seriously. And you talk about how he’s a real tough guy. But then you also wrote that he did these things that were really touching on the day he got the vaccine, like he wanted to get the vaccine in the same arm that he had his smallpox shot in and that he showed up wearing the peacoat of his cousin who died. Yeah. And it really stood out to me that, like, by the end of this journey of trying to convince him about covid. He was feeling a lot of feelings.

S2: Yeah, Machel’s don’t really communicate their feelings much, but he felt this like almost like I’m doing it for you. Me, you know, Tatchell, I’m wearing the coat that you had that I got from your belongings after you passed away. So it obviously meant something for him. Basically, once I was able to get him into the vaccine when he got it after that. And he knew, like he could serve as a great example to others. And so in my column for The Times, I gave him the last word. I told my dad, if I get out of had there, I said, like, Dad, what do you want to say to people like you or, you know, who might be like you? And and literally the quote, something to the effect of tell them that in Spanish he said, Lorenzo, negative or negative? Lorenzo But the corollary in English is going to be like a doubting Thomas. So tell them that doubting Lorenzo, who’s stubborn, who’s macho and whose country Chettle took this vaccine because he loves his family. And if he downing Lorenzo can take this vaccine, then everyone should. There is no excuse. And I just think that’s a very powerful message.

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S1: Do you still think of your dad as a pundit who

S2: is a war within it is a young and the good fighting, the evil within. But look, every time I show up, he’s wearing a mask. More importantly, this is where I think it’s the most telling, because all throughout this whole pandemic, I would get these texts from my siblings. Gustavo, you’ve got to talk to my dad or know. You got to talk to dad. You got to talk to dad. You got to talk to dad. He did this. He did that like they were basically sneaking him out all the time. So it was my job. And I would tell him and he would correct his his errors, his buddy, he smoked for a bit and then he’d go back to those same habits I have ever since we got the vaccine. You know what? Since he got the vaccine, at this point, it’s going to be about two weeks ago. He I have not gotten a single text or my siblings about my dad and any non safety protocol that he is doing.

S1: It strikes me it took you a long time to get here, like months of talking to your dad back and forth. And it took, you know, the government doing one thing, you know, working on the vaccine and then your family doing so much labor, honestly, to get this shot in your dad’s arm. It wasn’t just driving him there. It was like hours and days beforehand.

S2: Hey, you have to keep chipping away at it. Those of us who do love Banditos and there are most of us have abandoned our family. It is our job to talk to them with patience, with kindness, with love, but also being firm. It is not about you. It is about your family. And it’s about the very community, especially if it’s Latino Banneker’s that you love. So get with the program.

S1: Gustavo, thank you so much for joining me.

S2: Thank you for having me. Gracias.

S1: Gustavo Arellano is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and that is the show, What Next is produced by Mary Wilson, Daniel Hewett, Davis Land and Elana Schwartz. We get help each and every day from Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. And I am Mary Harris. If you took the weekend off, I hope you had a good one. I’ll be back here tomorrow.