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How The Coronavirus Pandemic Changed One Latina Teen’s Political Outlook

Marlene Herrera, an 18-year-old currently living in Mission Center, says the ...

Photo by Adriana Heldiz / The World

Above: Marlene Herrera, an 18-year-old currently living in Mission Center, says the pandemic and recent protests have influenced her politically during her first year as a voter.

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Young people in San Diego will be feeling the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on their mental health and political views for decades to come.

Aired: June 24, 2020 | Transcript

“Dale, dale, dale no pierdas el ritmo…”

A group of twenty people surrounds Marlene Herrera out in a yard. They’re mostly social distancing. The crowd is singing, urging her to not lose momentum. Marlene is wearing a cap and gown and swinging what looks like a baseball bat.

There are two pinatas in the shapes of the number 1 and a number 8. Marlene is celebrating both her 18th birthday and her high school graduation. They both fell during the same week that San Diego county began to relax its coronavirus restrictions on gatherings.

After dozens of swings, Marlene’s getting pretty close to giving up. But then she starts really stepping into it.

She’s now absolutely destroying this pinata, as her small cousins try to weave and dodge away from her swings to get the small bills that are now covering the ground.

Finally — the pinatas break from their string. The crowd lets out a cheer.

Afterward, Marlene told me the best part of the day was just finally being with her family and friends again in one place.

“It's been over two months, I was like ‘I get to see you again, I get to hug you. Wait, are you okay with hugging?’,” she said, laughing.

Marlene told me she’s had a lot of frustration to work through over the past few months. First, the pandemic hit. And then she had to complete her senior year from home. During that time, she’s been living in a crowded house with five kids under the age of nine, along with her sister, mother, and aunt. It’s hard to find space to herself or to do work.

Reported by Max Rivlin-Nadler , Video by Andi Dukleth

Marlene said in this new reality, she and many of her friends feel powerless. She’s been thinking a lot about mental health — and in college this fall, she plans to major in psychology.

“A lot of us were like, I can’t believe this is happening,” she said. “A lot of us got to the point where we burst into tears when we were picking up our cap and gowns. Even my mom, she was crying, she told us, this is not what I expected for you, what I planned for you.”

The mental health impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, especially on young adults, will be felt for years to come.

“We’re going to be paying for this for a long time, because of the betrayals or the feelings of being left behind,” said Tina Casola, a San Diego-based family therapist who specializes in trauma and the long-term impacts of stress. “Those are going to last for people.”

Casola thinks that while Marlene’s age group is far more supportive of one another than previous generations, it’s going to be up to older people to model how to get through this.

RELATED: Coronavirus Upended Her Family, But This Latina Teen Is Determined To Make Her Vote Count

“We have to figure out ways to get into our communities and giving them support during this time. Even though none of us have the answer. We don’t have a blueprint for this,” Casola said. “But they need to benefit from some of the seasoning that we’ve had, in order to pull these things together and be able take care of themselves.”

The pandemic and it’s mental toll are not the only things on Marlene’s mind. She’s grown up always worried about her family’s finances. On top of that, she’s grown up in a U.S. – Mexico border region.

As a Latina from a low-income family, living in a border region, Marlene feels tremendous pressure on her coming from the government. Even though Marlene’s family are all citizens — the realities of the Border Patrol, ICE enforcement and the uncertainty surrounding DACA have all influenced her political perspective.

“Not even from a Mexican point of view, just talking as a person of color point of view. There’s been so much oppression we’ve had. And we’re seeing it right now,” she said, referring to the state’s response to protests against police brutality. “I just don’t want a government that is working against me. Like I don’t want to feel like I’m fighting the government. They should be there for me.”

Casola, the family therapist, said life as a Latina in a border town can both narrow one’s worldview by limiting your access to outside perspectives and make you think this type of pressure is typical elsewhere in the country.

“Living in San Diego, it’s definitely different than if we go to other places and we have conversations about that. Perspectives are so important,” she said.

For Marlene, the stress just piles on.

With a lot of family members now living under one roof, including five cousins under the age of nine, the stimulus check her mother received was a huge help.

“It’s a big family here. We needed that,” Marlene said. “Especially the kids, because they are small. They have a very big appetite and a very fast metabolism.”

Marlene’s mother had been briefly laid off from working at a law office, but she was rehired after her office got a government loan.

Still, Marlene wishes that the government had done more during the stay-at-home order to prepare for reopening businesses safely.

“For us, you can’t afford to not work,” she said. “We still gotta pay rent, that’s not going to stop. You can’t stop paying for food. You can’t just stay home. I don’t want to come home and be the one that infects my family for some reason.”

The government’s response, or lack of response, has Marlene thinking about how politics directly impact her life.

After her first choice for president, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders dropped out of the race in April, Marlene was undecided on who she’d put her support behind in November.

Most recently, with the protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other acts of police violence against Black men and women have made an impact.

“I think I’m leaning towards Biden,” she said in a whisper. “Not that I’m entirely happy with him either.”

To her, President Donald Trump crossed a line when he sent in the National Guard during the Black Lives Matter protests.

“You’re just adding to the fire. You’re fighting fire with fire. How is that okay?” she said. “I want a change.”

To her, Biden might be that change.

“As much as people want to say Trump is good, and that he did all these changes and I’m grateful for any changes he’s made, I think it’s time for someone new,” she said. “You can’t be living in the time of like, 'Oh my god, what is he going to do now? What’s he tweeting?' We’ve had so many scares with him.

“I want people to be safe, and not scared to look over their shoulder at what’s happening. Or to leave the house with fear that I’m going to be pulled over because of the race I am. Am I going to be stopped because of the race I am?”

Looking ahead to a long summer of helping take care of her cousins and trying to safely see friends when she can, I asked her what she would change about this year if she had a magic wand.

“I want to be selfish with this question. Just my senior year. Because we worked, everyone worked so hard for twelve years straight, a lot of what we were looking forward to we didn’t get. It’s always going to be something we didn’t get. We didn’t get a graduation, we never got a normal graduation ceremony. No one got to get their yearbooks signed either. The last hurrah, you’re not going to get that,” she said.

Marlene said this will forever mark her generation.

“That’s always going to stay with me. That’s always going to be on your mind. When my kids ask me, ‘how was your prom?,’ I’m just going to say, 'I didn’t have one, can’t help you with that!'”

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Photo of Max Rivlin-Nadler

Max Rivlin-Nadler
Speak City Heights Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover City Heights, a neighborhood at the intersection of immigration, gentrification, and neighborhood-led health care initiatives. I'm interested in how this unique neighborhood deals with economic inequality during an unprecedented global health crisis.

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