By Joe Vazquez

OAKLAND (CBS SF) – A coalition of non-profit and independent companies in Oakland, pooling their resources to combat COVID-19 through a neighborhood campaign called “Resilient Fruitvale,” are facing one of their most difficult challenges yet as the virus surges: Advising people not to gather in large groups this holiday season.

“We as Latinos, as immigrants, we value family, we value community, but we really urge you to stay home,” said Karely Ordaz, Chief of Staff at The Unity Council, which includes La Clinica, the Native American Health Center and more than a dozen other Oakland community organizations.

The focus on Fruitvale comes as Alameda County officials have identified residents in the area as having a disproportionate percentage of COVID-19 cases.

“Oakland and particularly this area in East Oakland has seen about 40% of the infection rates in the county – in the entire county,” Ordaz said. “And we know that the people that live here are immigrants or low-income people of color, part of the extension workforce who are really struggling to get by.”

Many are from south of the border: frontline essential workers who live in crowded quarters, Latino and indigenous people who struggle with both language and cultural barriers.

“A lot of our community doesn’t speak English – doesn’t even speak Spanish – so we are making sure that we’re able to meet them where they are, and in a way that’s culturally competent,” Ordaz added.

One such community are the Mam, an indigenous group from the Guatemalan highlands who have immigrated to East Oakland by the thousands in recent years.

The vacuum of information in their own language has cost lives, said Henry Sales who this month launched a radio program called “Radio B’alam,” targeted to the Mam community in their own language.

“Many members that came here got sick, passed away from COVID because they didn’t get the message,” Sales said.

The term COVID doesn’t even exist in Mam, Sales said. He and his colleagues at Radio B’alam substitute a generic phrase that literally translates to “contagious disease.”

Radio B’alam broadcasts in Mam for two hours a day from inside the Homies Empowerment storefront where long lines of community members have gathered throughout the pandemic to receive donations of food and other necessities.

Homies Empowerment is run by Cesar Cruz, Ph.D., a former Jefferson Award winner.

Although immigrant families often cling closely to friends and loved ones during holiday celebrations, “Resilient Fruitvale” organizers continue to send the difficult message that gatherings outside one’s household are just not safe this season.

“I know you all want to do with your families, you know this holiday season and Christmas and New Year’s but we really urge you to stay home and make sure that you’re protected if you have to go out and do a job that’s essential for our economy, but really prioritize your health prioritize your health over community,” said Ordaz.

“We’re almost out of this, we see a light at the end of the tunnel and we’re really urging folks to just hold off, stay at home and protect yourself and the community.