The relentless death toll from COVID-19 is depriving the Latino community of what has long been considered the secret weapon behind their impressive growth and rising wealth: grandparents.
Multigenerational households have played a particularly important role in supporting Latinos as they have grown to become California’s largest ethnic group and the second largest in the country.
Older Latinos, who remain in paid employment beyond retirement age to an above-average extent, often provide additional income for the household.
And even in retirement, grandparents provide their families with much-needed childcare, carpooling, cooking and other support, reducing broader household expenses and enabling other adults to work longer and earn more.
However, Latinos aged 55 and older are disproportionately more likely to die from COVID-19 than whites, blacks and Asians, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In fact, after long having an overall lower death rate than white populations, Latinos have all but lost that lead in California and some other states, largely due to pandemic casualties, research shows.
And it’s not just a loss of grandparents. COVID-19 took a toll on uncles, aunts, older children and others who had played important roles in helping particularly low-income, multi-generational Latino households move upwards.
While the deaths of seniors have been devastating to all demographics, the loss of these beloved and important contributors has done disproportionate damage to Latinos and could ripple through the community both emotionally and economically for years to come.
“What we’re seeing is a domino effect,” said Maria Cadenas, executive director of Ventures, a nonprofit that helps Latino working-class families on California’s Central Coast. “Because its impact is not just a lack of revenue.”
For Latino households, the untimely loss of a grandparent often means “they suddenly have to work more, find alternative ways of caring for children, find alternative modes of transportation to work,” Cadenas said. “We are talking about economic stability and economic mobility.”
Tobias Noboa, a retired taxi driver and immigrant from Ecuador, was the patriarch of a seven-person, four-generation household in Queens, NY when COVID-19 invaded their home in April 2020.
Within a few weeks, the white-haired Tobias – always so robust – died at the age of 82.
Before that, “he drove, cooked, took care of the kids, helped his wife,” said his granddaughter Shyvonne Noboa, 41, a social worker. “He was an active person.”
Tobias played an important caretaker role in the household. He took care of his 62-year-old bedridden wife Juana, changing diapers and giving insulin shots.
He also helped with the day-to-day upbringing of his two great-grandchildren – Lincoln, now 9, and Shea, 7, the youngest in the family.
“From the moment they got up, he fed them breakfast. They played ball together. From sunrise to sunset, they were literally inseparable — two peas in a pod,” Shyvonne said.
In addition to the emotional pain and sorrow, the death of Tobias eroded the structure of the Noboa household.
Now Shyvonne’s mother, Janet Noboa, has to supplement her retirement plans from a hospital concierge job to care for an ailing Juana.
Shyvonne, her boyfriend Wilson Toala and their two children have since moved out of the household into their own apartment – to get a fresh start and some distance from the painful memories of Tobias.
“My grandpa was energetic, active and brought so much warmth and love into our lives,” Shyvonne said. “COVID has changed and taken all of that away.”
For tight-knit, low-income family structures, the loss of a grandparent can be particularly devastating and “makes it difficult for households to keep moving forward,” said Arturo Bustamante, a UCLA professor of health policy and management who has studied the pandemic’s impact on Latinos .
“Now COVID is another factor threatening economic security,” he said.
COVID-19 deaths, which now surpass 1 million in the United States, have hit Latinos more often, in part because they are more likely to work in jobs that cannot be done remotely and are often at greater risk of exposure to the coronavirus .
These included older Latinos, who statistically stay in the workforce longer than most. About 42% of Latinos age 55 and older were either working or looking for a job as of 2021, compared to about 38% of all people over the age of 55, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Other factors that made Latino seniors more vulnerable to the pandemic were their greater likelihood of living in the same multigenerational households that had long worked to their advantage.
The National Research Center on Hispanic Children & Families analyzed Census Bureau figures and found that 15% of Latino children in the US live with grandparents, compared to 12% of all children.
Often younger household members accidentally exposed older ones to the virus, which seemed to be the case with the noboas.
Latinos in the country also sometimes illegally lack adequate health insurance coverage, preventing many from seeking treatment for COVID-19.
The pandemic marked a remarkable reversal of fate for the community. Before COVID-19, Latinos in the US were admired for their relative health and longevity, despite having less education and lower annual incomes on average.
In 2019, adult Latinos age 65 and older had a 28.7% lower all-cause mortality rate than white adults. But in the first year of the pandemic, that lead dropped to 10.5%, according to research by Syracuse University’s Marc Garcia and University of Texas San Antonio’s Rogelio Sáenz.
In a forthcoming article, Garcia and Sáenz write that the gap in California’s all-cause mortality rate for Latinos aged 45 and older — 23% lower than for the same age group of white adults in 2019 — has completely disappeared since last year.
It remains to be seen whether the Latino mortality advantage will return in states like California, but scientists see irreparable damage from excessive deaths.
“There are already approaches to lasting harm for those severely affected by COVID mortality,” said Alicia Riley, a sociologist and an expert in Latino studies and mortality at UC Santa Cruz. Riley fears that the rupture in Latino family and community networks will have serious consequences for the mental health of surviving members and set back Latino gains in education and income.
Reynaldo Rosales, 65, of Watsonville, California, was a key worker at a nutritional supplement distribution facility in Santa Cruz County.
He was the main breadwinner in a household where he and his wife Maria lived with two of their adult sons. The couple have other children and grandchildren who live nearby. They babysat the children on weekends and some weekday evenings, allowing the adult children to work more hours.
When Rosales tested positive for COVID-19 in January 2021, he was so sick with fever and pain he had to crawl to the bathroom, his 41-year-old wife tearfully recalled.
Since his death, Maria says she now looks after her grandchildren at the weekends. But that can get more difficult. Without her husband’s income, she was forced to find extra hours to support herself.
She doubts anyone will be able to fill the multiple roles of her late husband.
“He was such a hardworking man,” she said.