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¡HICA! and Fiesta serve Alabama Latino community, offering free COVID testing, authentic cultural experience

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, ¡HICA! and Fiesta are providing a lifeline to Alabama’s Latino community.

Though it is difficult working through a major health crisis, staff of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama – ¡HICA! – have worked from home since March to serve their community. ¡HICA! champions economic equality, civic engagement and social justice for the state’s Latino and immigrant families. In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, ¡HICA! is providing free COVID-19 tests and emphasizing educational efforts to increase Latino’s health, safety and economic well-being.

José Gutiérrez is thankful for the many services offered by ¡HICA!, particularly the convenient access to coronavirus testing. While he wears a mask in public and remains healthy, the Blount County resident finds peace of mind knowing he can receive a free test, as costs usually range from $300 to $1,000, depending on the area. Gutiérrez’s first cousin in Dallas, Texas, died in June after a monthlong hospitalization with the novel coronavirus. A few weeks later, his uncle in Houston, Texas, died from the illness. Gutiérrez is mindful about the need to take precautions.

A highly skilled construction worker, since March Gutiérrez has declined lucrative out-of-state remodeling jobs to avoid contracting COVID-19. He said that he cannot afford to bring home the coronavirus to his wife and son.

“The pandemic hit communities of color the worst,” said Isabel Rubio, executive director of ¡HICA! for nearly 20 years. “COVID-19 has laid bare the inequities in our society, hitting the Latino community very hard. The pandemic has had such a severe impact, it’s been mind-boggling. Thank goodness for the generosity of the community at large.”

¡HICA! has partnered with three community health groups to provide free COVID-19 tests in nine Alabama counties. In July, 143 residents received free testing, while more than 40 people were tested in June at Cahaba Medical Care in Birmingham and another group received free testing Sept. 11. Rubio noted that ¡HICA!’s long-term mission is to improve the access and affordability of healthcare for the Hispanic population.

“The big story is trying to provide healthcare for people who don’t have health insurance,” Rubio said. “We’re joining with other entities in thinking about how to make solutions for the Latino community. We either all succeed, or we all fail. We are determined to succeed.”

Supporting families with children is another important way that ¡HICA! works to build community.

“We’ve done online housing education workshops and had incredible attendance,” with numerous clients taking part in zoom meetings,” Rubio said. “Even in the pandemic, we’ve helped people purchase new homes. We’ve helped people make sure their kids are connected for remote learning. One of our staff has helped individuals install programs on their computer.”

In April, several staff provided drive-through assistance with income taxes.

“If it takes us helping one person at a time, we do it,” Rubio said.

¡HICA! delivered more help to underserved Latinos in April and May. Staff handed out more than 500 boxes of food donated by the United Way of Central Alabama. Underserved families picked up the food at ¡HICA!’s Birmingham headquarters.

Fiesta 2020 accents culture, safety and education

Because of the ongoing pandemic, Fiesta Birmingham on Sept. 15 through Oct. 15 will host a virtual “30 days of Fiesta” program. For nearly 20 years, the celebration was held in Linn Park in Birmingham. This year’s celebration promises daily, impactful service with numerous entertainment and/or educational opportunities through online events, said Fiesta Birmingham President Teresa Zuñiga-Odom.

“Live cooking and mixology demonstrations, seminars on health and financial wellness, a Latin film series, and family arts and crafts projects featuring Hispanic artists are just a few of the activities we have in store,” said Zuñiga-Odom, who has helped organize Fiesta since its 2002 inception.

Each day has a theme. “Wellness Mondays” features services and resources to stay healthy and safe; “Taco Tuesday and Titos” offers cooking and cocktail demonstrations; “Cultural Wednesdays” showcases the people, culture, history and traditions of Latin American countries; “Throwback Thursdays” treats viewers to 18 years of Fiesta photos; and Financial Fridays” provides insights from Wells Fargo on how to build credit and savings. On the weekend, “Celebration Saturdays” presented by Alabama Power includes Facebook Live showings with the best of Latin art, food, movies, music and dance. “Family Sundays” offers the chance to gather and observe the importance of family and community.

Zuñiga-Odom noted that Alabama Power will sponsor educational safety through its fun safety program for kids, Saf-T-Opolis.

“Alabama Power has been a presenting sponsor of Fiesta since the celebration began nearly 20 years ago,” said Zuñiga-Odom. “The company has always had a huge presence at the event, with many members of the Alabama Power Service Organization helping smooth the way. Obviously, we won’t have volunteers this year, but we are so thankful for the continued help from companies like Alabama Power which help make this event possible. We couldn’t do it without them.”

Since 2002, Fiesta has awarded more than $70,000 in scholarships to deserving Hispanic students, with that commitment continuing with this year’s “Fiesta in a Box.” For $18, families can buy a beautifully decorated keepsake box with all the goodies to revel in Fiesta at home. Proceeds will fund Fiesta’s 2021 scholarships. On Saturday, Sept. 19 at 10 a.m., viewers may watch the unveiling of the colorful, Hispanic-themed box. The lucky holders of a box containing golden maracas or golden piñatas will win a deluxe prize.

Hearkening to the success of years past, Rubio said the virtual Fiesta is a great way to highlight the Latino culture.

“We will miss the opportunity to connect with others and share our culture through the live Fiesta gathering, but we all recognize the importance of safeguarding families,” Rubio said. “Our goal is to empower Hispanic and immigrant families to integrate, engage and lead their communities to reach their families’ aspirations.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)