South Bronx community leader Fernando Laspina Franco lost a dozen cousins to COVID-19.
South Bronx community leader Fernando Laspina Franco has lost many relatives and friends to COVID-19. | Coral Murphy/Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

How COVID-19 Hit Puerto Rican New Yorkers Hard in The Bronx and Beyond

Vanessa Colón Almenas, Víctor Rodríguez Velázquez, Mc Nelly Torres, and Coral Murphy, THE CITY

This investigation was produced in part with the support of the Pulitzer Center and the Facebook Journalism Project.

The City
This article was originally published on Jun 28 at 6:32pm EDT by THE CITY

Fernando Laspina Franco, a community leader in the South Bronx, lost 12 cousins to COVID-19 in his home borough and a nephew in Chicago.

William Sánchez Vargas, a 57-year-old building manager also from The Bronx, barely survived COVID-19 — but he’s lost “at least” 10 friends to the pandemic. Across the four residential buildings for seniors and people with disabilities where he works, he said, 16 people have died from coronavirus.

And Queens resident Richard López Rodríguez has shown up to his job as a Manhattan doorman every day, fearful of inadvertently exposing the five other family members he shares an apartment with to the virus.

These Puerto Rican New Yorkers live in two of the areas with the greatest possibility of contagion and death from COVID-19.

An investigation by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism (Centro de Periodismo Investigativo — or CPI — in Spanish) found the areas with the highest number of COVID-19 infections and deaths coincide with the counties with the highest proportion of Puerto Ricans in the United States. Those counties largely lie in the three states with the largest Puerto Rican populations in the U.S.: Florida, New Jersey and New York.

The counties with the most Puerto Ricans in Florida, New York and New Jersey are also among the most socially vulnerable compared to the rest of their respective states, the CPI also found.

And no county, the CPI found, is deadlier than The Bronx — home to nearly a fifth of the  Puerto Ricans in New York State. Decades of disinvestment, pollution and redlining, among other factors, have led to high levels of poverty in the borough and barriers to care for its residents.

New York, where a million Puerto Ricans reside is the state with the strongest relationship between the proportion of the Puerto Rican population and the rates of infection and death by COVID-19 across the United States. 

That’s what the CPI found when applying the statistical formula called Pearson correlation, which measures linear correlation between two variables and establishes that a trend is strong if the result exceeds 0.50.

The coefficient in contagions was 0.56 in New York, while the death rate yielded a result of 0.71. Even excluding The Bronx, the trend in infections and deaths among Puerto Ricans statewide remains just as strong.

In New York City, Hispanics account for 34% of overall deaths, while African Americans represent 28% of fatalities. Although the rate of COVID-19 infection and related hospitalizations is higher among the Black population, the death rate is bigger in the city’s Latino community, of which Puerto Ricans and Dominicans comprise a majority.

“Hispanics represent the majority of deaths [in New York City],” U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said during an April 10 White House news conference.

Vulnerable in The Bronx

Fernando Laspina Franco, the director of the El Maestro Cultural and Educational Center in the South Bronx, has mourned the deaths of many local acquaintances, along with family.

“I (also) lost 12 cousins here in The Bronx, and I lost my nephew, who passed away in Chicago,” he added.

Laspina Franco remembered Puerto Rican boxer and coach Nelson Cuevas, who died in late March. In 1976, Cuevas opened the Apollo Boxing Club, where he trained the likes of Mike Tyson. 

“I had my first amateur fight at his Apollo Gym,” Tyson wrote on his Instagram account. “I remember us kids would be so excited because when we had an exciting fight he would buy us soda and a mini hotdog in a biscuit because he knew we didn’t have money. Being around him during my amateur career was the best time of my life.”

View this post on Instagram

We lost one of the best people in the boxing world. Nelson Cuevas died from complications with Corona Virus. I had my first amateur fight at his Apollo Gym. He use to be one of Cus’ fighters when he was younger. When Cus had his Catskill fighters come down the Bronx to his gym, he protected us so fiercely. I remember us kids would be so excited because when we had an exciting fight he would buy us soda and a mini hotdog in a biscuit because he knew we didn’t have money. It was the best years of my life being around Cuevas and watching the Puerto Rican fighters. They were such showman. I tried to personify their machismo showmanship. People that knew Nelson knew he was nobody to fuck with. I love and respect him so much. Being around him during my amateur career was the best time of my life. Rest In Peace. End of an Era. #NelsonCuevasRIP #boxinglegend

A post shared by Mike Tyson (@miketyson) on

As of May 31, The Bronx was the county with the highest COVID-19 death rate and the fifth highest rate of infection in the United States. 

For its analysis, the CPI used information from the CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index (SVI), which is based on Census data. This index evaluates 15 social factors grouped into four themes: socioeconomic level; housing composition; minority status and language; and housing type and transportation.

Since the 1930s, The Bronx has received generations of Puerto Ricans, who today represent 19% of its population. The borough is also the most vulnerable county in New York, according to the CDC.

Some 29% of Bronx residents live below poverty levels, 12% are over 65 years old, and 10% have no health insurance, according to the CDC. More than 4,000 Bronxites had died of COVID-19 as of June 24.

Meanwhile, 36% of the population in The Bronx suffers from hypertension, 32% from obesity, 16% from diabetes and 6% from asthma, according to the city.

By mid-May, 15,888 COVID-19 deaths had been recorded in New York City. Of these, 12,571 people suffered from some chronic health conditions such as diabetes, asthma, cancer, respiratory diseases, immunodeficiency, heart disease, hypertension, kidney or liver disease, and obesity.

“Individuals we’ve found, who have diabetes and high blood pressure are at especially higher risk of bad outcomes from COVID, including dying,” said Dr. Oxiris Barbot, who is of Puerto Rican descent, and commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. 

‘A Higher Risk of Contagion’

As is the case with many Latino communities in the U.S., New York included, Puerto Ricans are more likely than the general population not to have health insurance or be fluent in English. They are also more likely to live below the federal poverty level and in overcrowded conditions. 

These are all social vulnerability factors that could cause greater probability of contagion or death, the CPI found through interviews with Puerto Ricans in Florida, New Jersey and New York, demographic data review and by consulting experts.

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Héctor Cordero Guzmán, a sociology professor at Baruch College, said the large number of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans living in Bronx neighborhoods contributed to high death rates.

“When you’re the majority in a minority group, you have a higher risk of contagion due to the size of these populations,” said Cordero Guzmán, who is also a demographer. “The counties in New York are low-income areas with a lot of social contact and with many people who are dedicated to the informal economy, selling on the street, cleaning industries, taxi drivers, among others.”

The CPI was not able to determine whether there is a higher number of infected Puerto Ricans when compared to other populations, since the nationality of those who have been tested for COVID-19 or who have died from the virus is not documented.

Challenges Upon Challenges

Milagros Cancel Ruiz, a native of Mayagüez, lives in a one-bedroom apartment in The Bronx with her three children. She uses the bedroom and her children sleep in a bunk bed and a sofa bed in the living room. 

Staying at home with the city under lockdown has represented a greater expense due, in part, to the need to buy cleaning items. That represents a challenge for Cancel Ruiz, who has been unemployed since November 2019.

“If you don’t spend that additional [money], how are you going to protect yourself? Because right now, no government is coming here to the community to say: ‘Take this mask, take this alcohol or take what you need.’ That comes out of your pocket,” said Cancel Ruiz, whose income is “the aid that any unemployed person gets.”

López Rodríguez, the Queens man, is a 35-year-old doorman in a building on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Since the pandemic began in New York, López Rodríguez has not stopped working, and commutes daily on the A train for his 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shifts. 

“I take precautions for my brother (who has a disability). I’m the one who exposes myself daily when leaving and returning. Except for that, my family stays at home, locked up, watching out that no one gets sick,” said López Rodríguez, who lives with his sister, his three nieces and his brother.

Like other ethnic groups, Puerto Ricans living in New York are not exempt from the racial and class disparity reflected in the COVID-19 crisis in the state. They are more exposed to contagion because many have been unable to stay at home due to the type of work they do — driving taxis, cooking or delivering food, among other tasks considered essential during the pandemic. 

López Rodríguez watches over the entrance to a 16-apartment building, where some owners left to isolate in their second homes during the pandemic.

“They’re multi-millionaires who don’t take risks. Many have left the city for their mansions [outside the city]. [Others] used to go out to walk the dogs, but they’re not even doing that anymore,” he said.

Doormen were included among the essential jobs mandated by an executive order that Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued on March 20. However, the CPI found that the job was removed from that list later the same day. 

In mid-June, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) local 32BJ reported the death of 132 members related to COVID-19. The union represents 175,000 doorpersons, janitors, security officers, and airport and restaurant workers on the East Coast.

“While essential workers are keeping others safe, they and those close to them are getting sick and dying,” said 32BJ President Kyle Bragg. 

By traveling on public transit, these workers are more exposed to contagion, Bragg added.

‘They Leave You to Die’

Back in The Bronx, Sánchez Vargas’s voice cracked and he wept as he recalled those fearful days he was sick. 

“I had a fever. I had no appetite. I haven’t eaten in more than two weeks. I couldn’t sleep at night, and sometimes, I don’t know if it was because of the fever, I was hallucinating,” he said through tears.

He said he called the New York City emergency number, but was never tested, despite reporting that he had symptoms of COVID-19. He went to a private doctor and paid for the test, which was positive. 

Sánchez Vargas was afraid to go to a hospital.

“They put you on a stretcher in a corner and, because maybe you don’t have many symptoms, they won’t pay attention to you and they will go tend to others who really need it,” said said Sánchez Vargas, who was born in New York, and has family in the central mountains of Adjuntas, Puerto Rico. 

“And they leave you there to die.”

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