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In East Palo Alto, Promotoras Bring Health To Their Neighbors' Front Doors

Maritza Leal (second from right) and other promotoras from Nuestra Casa help their neighbors on the Peninsula meet their health needs.
Maritza Leal
Maritza Leal (second from right) and other promotoras from Nuestra Casa help their neighbors on the Peninsula meet their health needs.

Early on a Saturday morning, Maritza Leal meets a group of other promotoras in a big parking lot next to a 7-Eleven and a taqueria.

They stand in a circle, holding thick stacks of flyers and rolls of tape. One of them hands out a map of the Woodland Park Apartment Complex –– a huge development that spans many blocks on the west side of East Palo Alto. The tenants are working-class and majority Latinx and the promotoras are knocking on their doors, informing their neighbors how to get help paying their rent during the pandemic. It’s one of the many ways Maritza shares resources with her community to help them stay healthy.
Soon, the promotoras divide into smaller groups, and part ways. I follow Maritza, and two other community workers down Bayshore Road.

“So we’re just going to start in that corner and just go from there, and hopefully get families to apply because this is the whole reason we are here,” Maritza says.
Usually, she gives out free food boxes on weekends and helped people navigate the pandemic, like handing out masks and explaining how COVID tests work.

“Families were afraid to get tests because they didn't know that they don't have to pay for it. It's free. So you need to tell them you don't need to have insurance. You don't need to have any legal documents to get the vaccine.”

But today, she and other promotoras have teamed up with a group of people who live in this housing development and know it well. Together they walk through the hallways and up and down stairs, trying to get an answer at every door they knock on.

“It's been hard. So we know that families have lost their jobs. Families... have to be at home.”

Maritza says a lot of people who live here work in the food industry, landscaping, or clean homes. Many of them had their hours reduced when the Bay Area began sheltering in place over a year ago. Some lost their jobs completely.

“Sometimes they don't get all the benefits that a regular employee will get when they work in those big companies. So we are the most vulnerable community,” she says.

We get to the first block of apartments and Maritza walks upstairs to a family’s home surrounded by dozens of potted succulents. She knocks on the metal screen.
“Hi, my name is Maritza and I work for Nuestra Casa,” she says.

A neighbor peers out through the door, and Maritza explains how her organization can help them apply for money from the state to go toward rent. She hands out a flyer, along with a sheet on where to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“We want to make this as easy as possible for them. And this is why we do this work, and then we do it because we love it, too. We want to help our families get resources.”

Maritza tells me this is what the promotora model is all about –– getting helpful information right to people’s doorsteps. That means speaking the language, and understanding where the people are coming from because the promotoras may have experienced the same thing, too.

“We belong to the community. We know the community and we have been trusted by the community,” she says.

Often promotoras reach communities who are hesitant to go to doctors or hospitals. Maybe they have no way of getting to an appointment or testing site, don’t know where to look, or just don’t feel comfortable. Maritza says she can personally relate to most of the families she interacts with— she’s been in their shoes.

“If I am a mother that works full time, I won't have time to go out and look for that information. I do [my work thinking like] what if I am in the same situation or place as the other community members?”

Just over a year ago, Maritza was working full-time as a house cleaner and taking care of her kids. When the pandemic hit, she lost a lot of work and began spending her free time volunteering with Nuestra Casa handing out food. Soon, she found out she could earn money working as a promotora. But this isn’t the first time she’s advocated for her community. After moving from El Salvador to Redwood City two decades ago, she began fighting for better education in her neighborhood.

“That's where I grow my skills as a community helper, being able to talk to the families about what we can do to make our local school perform better for our students, especially Hispanic students.”

As we approach another door, we notice the apartment is bare. Maritza says empty apartments are now a frequent sight on her routes.

“I mean, the families are just moving out of town. They're going to cities where rents are [cheaper] because that's another thing that we [face] in these areas,” she says.
The pandemic has made it hard for families who were already financially struggling. But it gives Maritza hope when someone does answer the door, she can start a conversation, and tell them how she can help. Often, she stays in touch so she can hear how the information ripples through a community.

“I have community members, they text me and they ask me directly for resources. Like yesterday I was with a friend in Redwood City and she said, ‘do you know where [the COVID testing] is this weekend?’ And I provide[d] the flier. I just got a message saying, ‘thank you’ because she went out and [got] the vaccine. And then also told me she's going to send her husband tomorrow.”

After a year of talking to families in her community, Maritza has knocked on thousands of doors and handed out just as many food boxes. She knows her work matters. And that keeps her going.

“I know that I'm helping others with the things, the resources, or any information that they need. And that makes me happy.”

Angela Johnston is the Senior Producer of Uncuffed and an editor in the KALW newsroom. She holds a Master’s degree in journalism and graduated from KALW’s Audio Academy program. She’s worked for KALW in numerous roles - from the deputy news director, to the health and environment reporter, and she's covered everything from lead poisoning to climate change. Her work has aired on KALW, KQED, Reveal, and The Pulse. She also freelances as a producer and editor for Cosmic Standard and AFAR Media. Outside of work, she loves to swim in the bay, surf small waves on her longboard, read, backpack, cook, and garden.