Why are older Latino men so vaccine hesitant? Denialism and machismo, says Gustavo Arellano

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LA Times columnist Gustavo Arellano says it’s a miracle that his papi agreed to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Lorenzo Arellano, 69, has spent the last year claiming coronavirus didn’t exist and God will keep him healthy. 

In his latest column, Gustavo Arellano writes that toxic masculinity and denialism are main drivers of why older Latino men are not getting vaccinated, using his own father as the poster child.

KCRW: Tell us a bit about your father.

Arellano: “He's basically a Mexican redneck. [He] comes from a small little village in Zacatecas. [He’s a] good, working class man, retired now. But you want to talk about the stereotypes of a backwards macho Mexican? That's my dad.”

What has your dad been saying about COVID and the vaccine in the past year?

“Every conspiracy you could think of, my dad said. That coronavirus wasn't real. That coronavirus was a government-created conspiracy. That coronavirus was the United States trying to get back at China, that's actually a new one. Or the best one — that we all have coronavirus within our bodies, so why even pretend like it's going to hit us because it already hit us. The vaccine has a chip. I don't need the vaccine because my blood is strong. That's literally what he said, ‘Strong blood.’ Everything. He was a skeptic of all skeptics.”

You described people like your dad as a “pandejo.” What does that mean?

“It's a portmanteau of ‘pendejo,’ a word that's not a slur word in Spanish but it's a harsh word, and then ‘pandemic.’ I use it for basically the Mexican version of “covidiot.’ In other words, people who willfully are ignorant about coronavirus, proudly wear it as a badge of honor, and ruin it for the rest of us who are doing it well.”

What did you say to him to change his mind and agree to get vaccinated?

“I told him very calmly, again and again, ‘Dad, you can't be like this. You cannot ruin it for your family. If you want to hug your 98-year-old mom, then you're going to have to take this vaccine.’

The other thing that sadly made him realize that coronavirus was real was people he knew personally started dying of coronavirus — two of his cousins, one in Mexico, and one in Northridge. My sister's godfather died recently, people from his village started dying. And that's when he realized, ‘Okay, maybe I should not be so flippant about coronavirus.’”

Is there a particular segment of the Latino community that's prone to believing misinformation about the vaccine and about the virus in general? 

“In good times, Mexicans love conspiracies. A lot of us think that Thomas Alva Edison was actually born in Texas, that Walt Disney was a Mexican orphan. Those are fun conspiracies to have. 

But when you think that coronavirus isn't real, despite so many Latinos dying because of the disease for various reasons, that's when it becomes dangerous. 

That's what I try to communicate in my column. If a skeptic as skeptical as my dad was finally able to be convinced, through patience and love but also firm words, then anyone can be convinced. I've actually gotten a lot of letters from people saying, ‘Thank you, this is the column that I needed.’”

Many people are having difficulty scheduling their vaccine appointments. Was it tough to get it for your dad?

“It was a minor miracle. My sister was able to do it within half an hour. But that speaks to the inequities that Latinos are facing. My dad, for instance, has no idea about the internet. He still has a flip phone. So if it was just him on his own, he would not have been able to book an appointment.

Because my sister knows how to use the internet and works from home, she was able to do it. But not all Latinos, not all working class families have that luxury or that privilege.”

Does your dad now have advice for others who are hesitant about getting the vaccine?

“I gave my dad the last word in my column, and he said, ‘Tell everyone that doubting Lorenzo got the vaccine because he loves his family, and if doubting Lorenzo can get the vaccine, then anyone can.’”