Who is Taking Care of our Caretakers? An Interview with Liza Gutierrez

Written by Donna Boguslavsky, KYC LGBTQ+ Center Project Lead

Liza visiting Kenneth Young Center's LGBTQ+ Center in Schaumburg, Illinois. Photo courtesy of Liza Gutierrez.

We’ve said it before, but we’ll say it again: in the face of this global pandemic that affects every aspect of our society, we might all be in the same storm, but we’re certainly not in the same boat. This is clear when we look at the disproportionate number of COVID-19 cases that affect Latinos living in suburban Cook county.


In some ways, this has brought the suburban Latino community together like it has not before. However, for organizations that closely work with Latinos and undocumented immigrants, like Partners for Our Communities (POC) in Palatine, leveling these disparities are nothing new, but direr. We interviewed Adult Leadership Coordinator Liza Gutierrez about what impact she has seen through her work with undocumented immigrants and Latinos in the suburbs in the face of COVID-19.


Here’s what Liza had to say about why the pandemic has affected Latinos in suburban Cook at the highest rates of any racial/ethnic group.


What is your name, title, and where do you work?

My name is Liza Gutierrez. I have a Master's degree from Loyola University in Criminology. My main experience is in behavioral health and social services. I have also worked in police social work. I am the Adult Leadership Coordinator/case manager. That means that the women's leadership program, ROLE (Reaching Out Lifting to Excellence) falls under my duties. I work in case management and as with any non-profit team member, I wear many hats.


How long have you been working there? What does your work look like and who do you serve?

I have been working for Partner for Our Communities (POC) since October 2009. POC is a non-profit that has been in existence for 30 years and it is very easy to fall in love with it! We have satellite offices in different locations. While our headquarters are in Palatine at the NCH Community Resource Center, we serve as many of the NW Suburbs as best we can (Rolling Meadows, Hanover Park, Hoffman Estates, Streamwood, Arlington Heights, Palatine, Wheeling). When I first started working for POC, I noticed many women at home wanting to but not reaching their potentials for a variety of reasons. I wrote a Latina Leadership Curriculum to help light a fire for these women. The program provides social services, helps with goal setting, and provides case management. For example, an immigrant woman will come to POCseeking assistance food, or clothing from our partner agencies. We will help with her immediate needs but also help them enroll in our Latina Leadership program, then English courses, then GED courses while providing immigration relief referrals. If domestic violence is an issue, we work with her on obtaining long term solutions. From there, we look at goals, etc. We have women today working in local hospitals, enrolled in higher education, starting their own businesses, and working for our local schools. We help them gain employment, and then they pay it forward by volunteering for ROLE programs. All of this is possible because POC works with other agencies to bring programs to areas of need. One thing I appreciate about POC is that we don't have tunnel vision when it comes to serving clients. We serve whole families in a variety of ways. Our website lists these at www.poc.news.


What is the access to justice grant about and how does it assist the community?

Access to Justice (A2J) is one of the grants that we received in January 2020 and again for the 2021 fiscal year. A2J provides access to legal representation for persons who are low income in an effort to bring equal justice for all to Illinois. The road to citizenship is not an easy one. I would say it's an enigma wrapped in a puzzle with lost pieces! Given the fears of unregistered persons, language barriers, lack of income, and transportation, immigration relief is not easy to come by (especially away from the big cities- in the suburbs). One of the things A2J does is bring immigration relief and education to unregistered persons. POC ROLE program educates via community navigators (our ROLE women) on Knowing Your Immigrant Rights, DACA, How to Prepare an Emergency Plan, Debtors Rights, Illegal Practice of the Law, and more. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, our navigators are presenting these via social media apps. We also give referrals to attorneys for immigration assistance and other immigrant issues. These lawyers are part of the A2J network and see our clients for free. If the case is accepted for representation, the client will not be charged legal fees. While there are still court costs, there isn't a cost for retaining a lawyer and for legal representation!


How has the pandemic affected the people you serve, particularly undocumented people? Are there specific challenges they may face throughout COVID?

Every day I take a look at the COVID-19 numbers. Every day I see that Latinos lead the way in COVID Cases. When the pandemic first hit our service areas, POC and ROLE mobilized with its volunteers and began to serve families suffering from the virus. We dropped off food, buckets with cleaning and disinfecting supplies, masks, connected them to medical care, advocated for financial aid, and against evictions. Why is this hitting Latinos so very hard months after we know to wear masks, keep distance, wash hands, and get medical care?

Here is my list:

  • It started with who we are as Latino immigrants in the workforce. We already knew that our unregistered and/or low-income Latinos are our LPN's, CNA's, janitors, our elderly care workers, our workers on the front lines of care. They were the first to get infected because they work in the services sector.


  • Due to low-income status, multifamily units are often overcrowded. Many immigrants come to the USA and first live with family. Close living quarters means sharing bathrooms. Unregistered immigrants do not have the privilege of isolating themselves in a separate room with a separate bathroom. This helped further the spread. Even if you clean and disinfect, keeping a distance is not easy in small apartments.


  • Working despite the illness is a necessity for many immigrant families. As unregistered individuals, they were and are not privy to any government financial support. If I am a citizen married to a non-registered person, I will not receive the federal stimulus check. This means you work, at all costs. This means further spread among your coworkers which also happens to be, unregistered immigrants.


  • Lack of knowledge and support. Where to get tested. Cost. Transportation, Technology, and other How to's. I believe that this is the strongest reason why we are still seeing high numbers. Despite efforts, many families still don't know that they can get tested even if they are unregistered. Many families still don't know that even after fevers are low or if symptoms are never shown, you can spread this virus. And, many families have no clue where to go to get tested. I know many will ask how can this be given that it's all over the news, social media, storefronts, etc. While this is true, we are dealing with language barriers, technology barriers, and transportation barriers. For most of us, we can do a search online and find a testing site near our home. However, when you don't have access to a computer or phone, your world is much smaller. Families don't know that they can access free tests. When they gain this knowledge, the fear of being unregistered overcomes the need for testing and care. Once they get over this fear and they find a place to get tested, the question becomes, how will I get there? How will I communicate with them? A friend recently got tested. It took 4 hours sitting in a car to get tested. After 2 weeks, there was still no response. Being diligent, this person went to another place to get rapid tests. It took 3 hours, knowledge of uploading information to a site and an ID to get tested (thankfully the person is negative). Our immigrants lack transportation. They have phones without service or limited service. They don't have identification and cannot financially afford to sit at home and wait for 2 weeks for results. It is not easy being an immigrant in the USA, and more difficult during COVID 19. But understanding this and providing access with supports to testing for our immigrant populations, is a win for all of us.


How can people support you in the work that you do? What kind of community support are you looking for?

If you want to support the work I do, support POC. Due to the COVID pandemic, we have greatly reduced our fundraising efforts. While many in social services know that we volunteer as many or more hours as we do work, the need to fund overhead costs is still present. While in-kind donations make a difference, financial donations ensure the longevity of services. We need to be funded in order to be here in the future. Donations can be made at www.poc.news. Or, you can drop off disinfecting supplies, gift cards, masks, and food at our headquarters on Thursdays at 1585 Rand Rd in Palatine, IL.


How can people who are interested in receiving services from POC contact you best?

847-847-4475 or email at pocrole@gmail.com


Thank you so much, Liza, for the interview! In response to the tremendous toll that this pandemic has taken on the Latino (and specifically, undocumented) community, we have teamed up with Liza’s team and POC to provide services such as Know Your Immigrant Rights workshops, posting information about COVID-19 testing sites in English and Spanish, and providing translation assistance to the community. More work needs to be done, and that includes for our non-Spanish-speaking undocumented immigrants, as well. If you want to support our work, volunteer your time, assist with translations, or get more information about your rights, contact donnab@kennethyoung.org.


Learn more from our team:

Addressing underage drinking among Latinx students

The 2020 U.S. Census - Be Counted!


Why we use the “X” in Latinx

How to Practice Self Care while Social Distancing


650 E. Algonquin Rd., Ste. 104
Schaumburg, IL 60173
(847) 496-5939
CPYD.coalition@gmail.com
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Funding provided in whole or in part to the Kenneth Young Center by the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and the Office of Adolescent Health (OAH).