It was a typical weekday at the Cardenas Market in Rialto, a small suburb of the city of San Bernardino, but with one exception: Customers were greeted just inside the entrance by two masked faces behind a folding table stacked with pamphlets. This is now the work of superheroes.
Natanael Chavez and Sylvia Ramirez are promotores, or community health workers, with the El Sol Neighborhood Educational Center. On this fall day, they were handing out COVID-19 informational pamphlets and awarding fun prizes like face masks, backpacks, comic books, and puzzles that explain how to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
(Click on a thumbnail below to view sample comic strips full size.)
Chavez and Ramirez serve in a small but mighty army of promotores working with the 30-year-old El Sol — an advocacy group that assists vulnerable communities in California’s Inland Empire region by facilitating access to health care, housing, education, and leadership skills. Since April 2020, their mission has expanded to include disseminating information about the coronavirus and the vaccines that protect people from it.
Chavez’s job also includes playing the dashing superhero with a yellow cape, Captain Empath, at El Sol educational presentations in the community. His efforts are part of a campaign recognized by the White House and President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, MD, and championed by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as an example of successful information distribution.
Debunking Bad Information
“We’re trying to fight miscommunication and misinformation especially within our Latino community,” said Chavez. “They don’t want to get vaccinated because they hear rumors. They trust more social media. I understand where the fear comes from. When you’re not educated with the proper information, it puts a fear in you of ‘what if?’ Since they don’t have access to the facts, they fear the unknown.”
El Sol mobilized quickly in response to the pandemic, launching a campaign to educate its communities and collect much-needed data. The group immediately assigned three part-time promotores to work on COVID-19 in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties. They made a total of 16,000 phone calls to find out what people needed. Since then, the organization has handed out more than 1,360 hygiene kits, 50,000 face masks, and 12,450 food boxes. The promotores also helped people find health care services after testing positive for COVID-19. When dedicated financial support materialized, El Sol added more promotores to the effort and began teaching other organizations how to conduct successful campaigns.
This year, El Sol’s Community Health Workers/Promotores Training Center educated more than 100 CHW/Ps from California and other states. The program also provided technical assistance to 36 community-based organizations, managed care plans, and health centers on how to incorporate community health workers in their efforts and retain them afterward.
El Sol is funded through donations and CARES Act funding. Its current annual budget is $3 million, of which 55% is dedicated to COVID-19.
“It was more like social support and connecting services to those families,” said El Sol Executive Director Alex Fajardo. “After that, we started working on a strategy for outreach, education, social and mental support, testing, and now vaccination and recovery. All of a sudden, it became a spectrum of activities.”
A Superhero Is Born
The strategy included transforming Chavez into Captain Empath for their production of “The Battle of the Millennium” at Inland Empire community gatherings. The presentation tells an inspiring story about defeating the villain Rona — a coronavirus resplendent in a large red spiky turtle shell, played by El Sol community health worker Kenneth Antry III.
Rona’s evil deeds include spreading disease, fear, and misinformation. His minions, wearing spiky red helmets, try to vanquish Captain Empath after he receives his vaccination, but — spoiler alert — their attacks only help the superhero build antibodies that make him stronger and enable him to wrestle Rona to the ground.
“You win,” says a defeated Rona, slinking offstage.
“I think community theater and this popular education approach is really one of the most effective ways we have to educate the community with messaging that’s easy to understand,” Fajardo said.
But it isn’t the only approach. El Sol also partnered with San Bernardino’s Young Visionaries Youth Leadership Academy to produce a hip-hop cross-cultural song, “Time to Heal.” The song and its video were supported by a grant from the Public Health Institute with funding that helped develop a mental health toolkit with advice on coping with traumatic experiences such as COVID-19. El Sol also created “The Official COVID-19 Song,” an “optimistic message” about COVID-19 that was distributed to Spanish-language radio stations for broadcast, Fajardo said.
Recognition for El Sol
The multimedia activities have raised El Sol’s profile and drawn praise from near and far. Fajardo and staff members attended a Fourth of July celebration at the White House, at which they were recognized by Fauci for the vaccination campaign. California Assembly Majority Leader Eloise Gómez Reyes honored El Sol as 2021 Nonprofit of the Year for her district, which includes San Bernardino, Rialto, and Fontana. And the CDC cited El Sol as a model for how organizations can spread COVID-19 awareness.
Chavez said he has seen the payoff in his community. During their visit to the Rialto market, Chavez and Ramirez fielded questions about the vaccine from a few dozen people. Most said they had already been vaccinated and accepted a pamphlet to share with friends and relatives who were hesitant to follow suit.
One older man proudly proclaimed he and his wife had been vaccinated since January and lamented the people he knew who died after contracting COVID-19. Another man explained he had received both Pfizer vaccine doses but was confused about the booster shot.
Inspired by other promotoras, Ramirez joined El Sol in 2020 to help the community. These days, she is stationed at a superhero folding table at grocery stores, restaurants, and other businesses to share information with the public.
“The people are friendly,” she said. “Most have some questions about the vaccine, so we’re here to help answer them. We have this pamphlet that explains the differences between the vaccines including Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson. We have another pamphlet titled Myths & Facts that answers many of the doubts people have about getting vaccinated.”
The Real Superheroes
El Sol promotores canvass neighborhoods, cohost vaccination pop-up events with Loma Linda Hospital at churches across the region, and provide educational information in English and Spanish. They distribute the comic books (PDF), activity books (PDF) and toolkits.
“The play and the comics are related to the heroes, who are the community workers and the super,” says Fajardo. “They are the center of our entity, and they need to be recognized. Really, they are the heroes.”
The workers at El Sol realize that the conversations around the pandemic aren’t limited to the virus or vaccines. This latest phase of their campaign is called “Time to Heal” and was produced in collaboration with the CDC. Along with the toolkit, El Sol’s website features moving testimonials from residents (PDF) who have been severely affected by the pandemic. The website offers a guide on coping with short- or long-term trauma (PDF) and tips on creating a self-care plan (PDF).
“We have lost everything — people, jobs, hope, and we have not had time to reflect on it,” Fajardo said. “Everything now is about the ending the pandemic and, as soon as we get this done, I’m pretty sure we’ll be having a lot of mental health–related issues. When we were doing ‘Time to Heal,’ I tried to get testimonials from people I know who have suffered a loss. People are not ready in terms of how to talk or how to heal. These discussions were painful for them, so I think it’s a good opportunity to bring awareness of it and how to talk about it.”
Ivan Fernandez is a writer and photographer based in Southern California who specializes in coverage of the arts, culture, history, politics, and sports with an emphasis on Latin America and its US diaspora. His work has appeared online and in print publications including the GRAMMYs, Flaunt, KCET (Artbound, Lost L.A., & Southland Sessions), the James Beard Foundation Award-winning website LA Taco, and others. He is a graduate student at San Diego State University.