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Mayfield Latino community overcomes language barriers, trust issues in recovery process

In downtown Mayfield, a sign commemorating the historic locations echoes the courthouse spire that stood before December's tornado tore it down.
Lily Burris
In downtown Mayfield, a sign commemorating the historic locations echoes the courthouse spire that stood before December's tornado tore it down.

A spire stood atop the Graves County Courthouse before an E-4 tornado swept through downtown Mayfield in December. While the spire no longer tops the courthouse, it can still be seen – less than a hundred yards away – in a mural just off the square proclaiming “Mayfield: More than a Memory.”

Hundreds lost homes in Mayfield and thousands saw severe damage. One of those was Luz Faustino, who lives just a few blocks from the storm-torn courthouse.

Faustino and her family have been in Mayfield for the last five years. Before the storm, she would sell drinks and corn in front of her Broadway home, now – six months later – she’s getting ready to start again. She doesn’t speak a lot of English, but her son Daniel Turrubiartes translates for her.

“She said that [the night of the storm] was very scary. It was a very traumatizing event because we lost everything, but she's very thankful to God that house didn't fall over,” Turrubiartes said. “But she's thankful for the people that came and helped remodel the whole house, but it was a very scary event.”

Faustino and Turrubiartes said almost everything was gone after the storm: the roof, the kitchen, and most of their furniture. In the days following the storm, the family moved in with their pastor, Jaime Masso, while they waited for their home to be repaired. Faustino said the last six months have been very difficult and tiring.

“People were here all day working, there was no day for the past six months,” Turrubiartes translated. “Also it was very stressful because we were living with another family and we were worried that when we were living with them that we might break something in their house and stuff like that.”

Masso preaches at Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispana de Mayfield. He’s been in Mayfield for the past 14 years and he’s noticed that people don’t migrate here like they do in other communities – government data indicates 13.5% of Mayfield’s nearly 10,000 residents are Hispanic or Latino.

The pastor alerted his congregation to the disaster to the best of his ability as the storm bore down on the western Kentucky community.

“We got notice because Pastor Jaime sent us a text message to a big group chat, the whole church,” Turrubiartes said. “That's how we knew., so we went to go to take shelter in the basement.”

Masso was at home when the tornado ripped through the town in December.

“Our home was not touched, the tornado path [was] like half a mile away, but still [it] was scary,” Masso said. “Gladly out of our church family, just one family had significant damage in their home.”

The day after the storm, Masso and his wife went to Paducah to get water and food for the families in need and the volunteers they knew would arrive. They kept the church open for a while after the storm, and supplies were piled up all around the building for those in need. They received so many donations they had to limit the space where church services were held because of the volume of items.

“People came from everywhere just bringing supplies, some people call me, [asked] what we needed,” Masso said. “We told somebody that we needed tarps, they brought a bunch of eight by eight small tarps. Then they called again. I went, ‘Those are too small, we need bigger, to cover the roof,’ so they did that.”

There was a church in Texas that lent Primera Iglesia Bautista four generators that they were able to share with families in need.

Like it was for so many others in the aftermath of the tornado, the biggest need in Masso’s congregation was for information on what to do and how best to move forward.

For many in Masso’s church, their experience with government entities outside the U.S. caused confusion and hesitation, the pastor said. People without legal status could interact with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and not have to worry about Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but people in the Spanish-speaking community were still reluctant to interact with the government. The majority of Primera Iglesia Bautista’s churchgoers are from different areas of Mexico, but some are also from Puerto Rico and Guatemala.

Luz Faustino stands in front of her home in Mayfield. It was severely damaged by the December 10, 2021 tornado, but has been repaired since then.
Lily Burris
Luz Faustino stands in front of her home in Mayfield. It was severely damaged by the December 10, 2021 tornado, but has been repaired since then.

“There was a lot of mistrust, or distrust, but people got to understand and to learn. We had good people that were patient with them, and showed them that they didn't have to fear them,” Masso said. “Then they applied and they got some help.”

Masso said they had to help people navigate working with their insurance, FEMA, and the American Red Cross. The church asked for Spanish speakers from FEMA and the Red Cross to help people with their programs and they were able to supply those to the community.

In the month after the disaster, the church served lunch and dinner to community members and first responders almost everyday.

Masso said his community has handled this situation “tremendously well.” People have been referring each other to different services and letting each other know about what was going on. He said one of his congregants told him they couldn’t keep working all day everyday without a schedule after a month of giving out supplies and helped him organize volunteers so people could rest as needed.

“Now people are working, so we have to rethink the way that we do this, doing it in the afternoon, on Saturday, so that people can come,” Masso said. “Whenever we open, we always have people knocking on our door. They even see my car in front and they just knock on the door. ‘Are you open?’ ‘No, we are not, but what do you need?’”

Now, Masso said people just need things to speed up. There’s a need for skilled labor and people who can help with the rebuilding process. He’s also hoping to see more people owning their homes now, since previously there were a lot of rental properties in Mayfield.

Masso and his church aren’t the only ways that the Spanish-speaking community in Mayfield is getting help. Some people have received help through the Mayfield and Graves County school systems.

Faustino was one of those. Her and her family got some help from the school to get supplies – wood, a stove and even some carpet – to rebuild their home.

Gaby Acree is the migrant coordinator for Mayfield Independent Schools and Graves County. Normally, without a disaster, Acree helps kids who belong in the migrant education and bridges the gap between home and school or home and the community to get kids involved and help them with different opportunities.

Sometimes this means helping with homework and other times this means helping students whose families migrate a lot and they have some gaps in their education.

Like Masso, Acree has also noticed Mayfield tends to be the last stop for migrating families because they like the town and they like Kentucky.

She says there are things that need to be done on a communications and infrastructure level to warn Spanish-speaking families and individuals in the region about impending disasters like December’s storm.

The school had to send a text out explaining what was going on and what people needed to do when the storms started because people weren’t getting the news. Acree said some families did have children that could translate, but families that moved to the area recently were less likely to have that.

“The news [is] in English, so our families don’t [understand]. When they tell you there’s a tornado,’ it doesn't matter if I listen to the news, to me [it] doesn't mean nothing,” Acree said. “When you're telling somebody there is a tornado and you don't live in an area or a county [where] there are tornadoes, it's kind of hard to make them understand.”

She and one of her coworkers were texting back and forth nonstop the night of the storm to make sure everyone was informed. She said their phones probably didn’t stop ringing and things probably didn’t calm down till February. The night of, people were calling them instead of 911, not just because of the language barrier, but because the lines were so busy.

From her experience, Acree said she doesn’t know a lot of technical terms based on how she learned English. She did know of a program that had come to talk about weather translations in Paducah, and how there really is no difference between watch and warning in translation.

After the storm, the school district got together to remind workers of the large Hispanic population and how language would be a barrier for these people.

“We tried to make sure that everybody was aware that we will need a bilingual staff, we will need forms in Spanish,” Acree said. “There was a need to our families, even with FEMA, we had to go there and help and when the Red Cross was here, they were in the school and we have a set of volunteers that were helping our families, because we needed to make [FEMA] aware that there was a need, that probably would be the biggest barrier.”

She said they tried to make sure that all students, migrant students or not, could have everything they needed. Now, several months later, one of the biggest needs Acree still sees is the need for mental health assistance.

“Before we do something, we need to make sure that there is somebody [who] is going to be there to help our families,” Acree said. “After we realized that our kids were covered, then we realized it is not just our children, it is our adults, it is our families, our parents, our kids because the kids will come and mention things that, ‘Well my mom is scared, my dad is scared.’”

Lily Burris
The Graves County Courthouse in Mayfield still stands in a state of disrepair after the December tornado damaged and destroyed much of the community.

With this in mind, the school system is working with AmeriCares to get Spanish-speaking therapists in the community. Acree said they did a two-week assessment of the community and are planning to hire someone to work with the Spanish-speaking community in the town.

Tija Danzig is the senior director of AmeriCares U.S. program. The company has bilingual mental health experts on their staff that they were able to send to the area in the immediate aftermath. During their time in Kentucky, they came to see that while there is mental health support in English, there's only one bilingual clinician in the area who works for the school district.

“The issue really is that there is not enough bilingual staff support in the county to check in with the Spanish speaking population to have a proper assessment of their mental health and their well being especially in the wake of the tornadoes,” Danzig said.

AmeriCares is looking to hire two Spanish-speaking mental health team members to work with local groups in Mayfield. Danzig said they look at recovery as a long-term investment, but they don’t have a specific timeline for when they’re expecting to get those workers in place. She said they have been working with local partners such as the school system and area churches throughout this process.

“We spoke with lots of people trying to understand how we can help, that included government officials, community members, just dozens and dozens of people,” Danzig said. “Everyone we spoke with said that they were losing sleep because the Spanish-speaking population was hit really hard and there were few resources or services who spoke the language that can really help them.”

Danzig said she learned people who had been evacuated to the state parks didn’t understand that they could stay as long as they needed. She also learned that many people were afraid to go to places that offered support because so many volunteers and so much assistance arrived in government vehicles.

“AmeriCares had people on the ground that speak Spanish, and we were continuing to support that in the wake of the tornadoes, because we want to be able to communicate and let this population know that help is on the way,” Dansig said. “We're going to continue to do that in the days, the weeks, the months, and hopefully the years to come and really try to help rebuild Mayfield in a way that is supportive of those that need that care and that service.”

Faustino said she thinks this is very much needed for the Spanish-speaking community. There’s really a need for all sorts of services in Spanish beyond just mental health treatment.

“The day after tornado, we had a bunch of stuff, we couldn’t go to the doctor. There was nobody to speak Spanish,” Turrubiartes said. “Like the glasses, most of us lost their glasses, and we needed to go get them. There was nobody to translate.”

Faustino thinks any sort of assistance for the Spanish-speaking community’s health is a good thing, but there’s something more specific she’s hoping to see in Mayfield’s future – the repair of the courthouse and the surrounding square.

“Right there by the court because mostly that's where everything is, how the damage, and that's, when she drives by there makes her feel like ‘Oh, it just happened yesterday,’ so that's the place that makes her feel like that….mostly all of the other things are like getting started or halfway done. But the court is still there just that's what makes her like think that the tornado just happened again and she wants to see that court rebuild.”

Faustino, like so many others in the Mayfield community, wants the town she calls home to heal from this disaster. She wants it to be more than a memory.

This spelling of Tija Danzig's name has been corrected.

Lily Burris is a tornado recovery reporter for WKMS, Murray State's NPR Station. Her nine month reporting project is supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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