A woman who disinfected each and every egg. A mother of two who experienced her first panic attack. A graduate student who thought he was witnessing the end of the world.
These were just some of the behaviors and emotions San Antonio residents described in online video interviews conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic as part of an oral history project developed by Whitney Chappell, a professor of Spanish linguistics at UTSA.
Chappell and three graduate students interviewed over 100 Hispanic residents from November 2020 to December 2021, some in Spanish, some in English and some in what the researchers labeled Spanglish. Chappell said she wanted to focus on the Hispanic community because statistics were showing that they were more negatively impacted by the pandemic, getting sicker from the coronavirus and dying at higher rates than white Americans.
“I felt like it was very important to share their stories in a way that honored and reflected them and amplify their voices, because otherwise they might be lost,” said Chappell, who conducted the interviews over Zoom.
During the interview period, many people had lost their jobs, while others — mainly low-wage, service-oriented employees — continued working outside the home. Many schools remained closed.
As the interviews began in November 2020, the U.S. had just passed the milestone of 100,000 COVID-positive cases diagnosed within a 24-hour time period, COVID-19 vaccines were still in trials and Dr. Anthony Fauci had just described symptoms of long COVID that as many as a third of patients were experiencing.
By the time the interviews wrapped up, the U.S. death toll had surpassed 800,000, but vaccines were widely available and many schools had reopened. A worrying new variant, omicron, had just been identified by scientists in South Africa.
By December 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in every 100 people 65 or older in the U.S. had died.
Documenting a sense of loss
In the videos, several interviewees noted that the Hispanic community sacrificed normal cultural customs, such as greeting family and friends with a kiss on the cheek and a hug.
People interviewed also talked about serious crises, like being unable to buy food and having to rely on the food bank. They also described the more prosaic weirdness of navigating everyday life in a pandemic: standing in line outside stores, getting temperature checks before going inside, wearing face shields and hand-sewn face masks.
They described not being able to blow out birthday candles, debating whether it was OK to hug someone and communicating via online group messages. Many also said watching news reports on television exacerbated their fears and anxiety.
One woman recounted that she had resorted to Hispanic cultural healing practices to treat her husband’s COVID-19 diagnosis, including putting rubbing alcohol in his belly button. Another recounted the exact moment she questioned the future of the world: when she couldn’t find bottled water or paper towels at the supermarket. A teacher described the heartbreak of watching her students regress socially.
“What caused me the most fear was that every day that passed, there was something new,” then-graduate student Ada Zamarripa said in her November 2020 interview. “There was another restriction, another prohibition. Now stores are closed, now hospitals are closed. Now, unless you’re dying, you can’t go see a doctor.”
Yedid Mejía, at the time a graduate student at UTSA’s Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, was one of the three students who conducted interviews.
She said doing them took a toll on her own mental health.
Interviewees described mourning the deaths of loved ones they couldn’t say proper goodbyes to, unable to visit in the hospital or even see them one last time, as coffins were kept closed because of the virus. She learned of marriages that ended and worries over elderly family members.
“COVID revealed the most humanitarian side of the human race, but also the ugliest side,” she said.
Mejía said she got to the point of no longer wanting to continue working on the project as the pandemic advanced, as topics got more intense and grim.
“Everything was just very, very recent,” she said. “We were still living through [the pandemic], so everything still felt very tense.”
She did hear some hope, mostly for the vaccine that became widely available by early 2021, which allowed people to spend time in person with family and friends again.
Looking back at themselves
The San Antonio Report recently spoke to two participants who took part in the oral history project, showing them their videos and hearing their reflections on their pandemic experiences.
Lydia Gonzalez, a 39-year-old high school teacher, teared up as she watched herself describe in January 2021 her fears that her mother, who has underlying health issues, would not survive if she contracted the virus.
Her mother is alive and well today, Gonzalez said, but she still worries. After a concert the pair recently attended in Austin, she acknowledged feeling anxious and worried, keeping a close eye on her mother for any symptoms.
“I want to cry,” Gonzalez said in Spanish as she watched her video interview. “The fear, if something like this happens again and my parents have aged. … It’s different.”
Pavel Demon, a Judson Independent School District teacher who was interviewed in February 2021, lost his best friend and former roommate to COVID-19 seven months earlier.
“As a teacher, you try not to show many of those personal issues to your students,” said Demon about how he felt then. “But sometimes it affects you in a negative way, and as much as you try to fight it, it’s sad. It’s hard to focus. … You try to shake it off, it isn’t always easy.”
More than two years later, Demon said he still looks at his best friend’s photo first thing each morning.
And he still religiously sanitizes everything.
Painful but important work
Chappell said early on, she had a hard time finding residents interested in sitting down for interviews. To get the project going, she asked her bilingual graduate students to tap their social circles to find willing participants.
The stories she and other researchers around the country collected during the pandemic, she said, will be saved in perpetuity, available to future scholars seeking to understand how we lived during this unprecedented time.
“We have the statistics about how many people got sick, how many people died from the pandemic,” she said. But soon enough, “we’ll forget how we felt, how our emotional reaction to this international emergency impacted us in the beginning.”
The videos will be stored in the UTSA Library archive and can be viewed on YouTube, through three playlist collections. Chappell is also creating a website for researchers and the general public to read and view.
The Witte Museum also documented the COVID-19 pandemic in San Antonio in 2021 by asking the community to submit oral histories, photographs and objects that showed how people helped the community at the time.
A range of items can now be seen at the B. Naylor Morton Research and Collections Center. A COVID-19 vaccine, a face shield and a mask emblazoned with “Black Lives Matter” are among the items on display.
For Gonzalez, memories of the uncertainty and fear she experienced during the pandemic persist despite the passage of time.
“Every time I leave work, I put my computer in my bag and think, ‘I don’t know if I’ll be back.’ … You don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “We’re marked. It’s not the same. Even though we desire to go back to normal … after three years, it’s not possible.”