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Local Artist Captures Garfield County Pandemic Vignettes With Spanish-Language Storytelling Project

Sylvia Johnson
Carbondale-based Sylvia Johnson shared the stories of people such as Jose. The project was made possible by National Geographic Society’s Emergency Fund for Journalists and created in collaboration with Garfield County Public Health.

Carbondale-based artist Sylvia Johnson spent part of the pandemic working as a contact tracer in Garfield County. Her conversations with people who had COVID-19 became a source of inspiration, which she has now turned into a storytelling project. “La Vacuna es Para Nosotros,” or “The Vaccine is for Us” highlights the voices of Spanish-speaking Garfield County residents to share their stories and encourage more people to get vaccinated.

The project is available in English here. El proyecto está disponible en Español aquí. Below is a transcript of Johnson’s conversation with Aspen Public Radio.

What are some of the stories you found when you were talking to people?

There's a whole wide range of stories. I worked as a contact tracer for the Garfield County health department since November, and that's how I found some of these stories. Some of them are people who were very, very sick and intubated for months in Denver – or one woman had to have an emergency [cesarean section] from COVID.

And then there's the other end of the spectrum. People who never got sick, but want to be able to return to a more normal life or want to be able to work without having to quarantine. I would say across the board, everyone had a pretty difficult year and the impact – emotionally and physically and economically – was very clear in all of the stories

Do you think there's a greater importance on highlighting the voices of people who are significantly represented in the communities around here, but don't often have a platform?

Yeah, absolutely. I think it's really important that we raise up voices and people are seen who often aren't seen. That was a huge part of the goal of this project. I think it's also a testament to what was experienced in the past year, but told through the voices of people who often aren't seen.

There's real value I think in, and people being seen in that way, especially in a community, like the [Roaring Fork] Valley that runs on a tourist economy and the people who are our service workers – essential workers – are very much in the background a lot of the time.

Is there anything unique to the experience of Latino people that shows up in the voices of the people you talked to? Is their experience with COVID-19 and with the vaccine different from other communities?

Yes and no. No in the sense that people who have had especially serious cases of COVID are deeply impacted by what they've experienced and that I think the pandemic has been a universal experience in a lot of ways.

But at the same time, people from communities of color, people who are more on the margins of society sometimes and don't have the social or financial protections, have definitely borne the brunt of this disease in a way that other white communities have not.

vacunas para nosotros2.jpg
Sylvia Johnson
The stories, such as the one told by Brenda, are designed to encourage more people to get vaccinated. The project was made possible by National Geographic Society’s Emergency Fund for Journalists and created in collaboration with Garfield County Public Health.

What is universal about these experiences with the pandemic and with the vaccine? Given that this has touched every corner of life – is there something in here that everyone can relate to?

Absolutely. That stands out to me, especially when I look at the full body of work and the work I've done as a contact tracer. Talking to people who've experienced this all day long – the pandemic has hit everyone.

We've all experienced it different ways, but it is certainly a universal experience and something that has touched people regardless of where you come from. I think that that echoes in these stories because there is a lot of diversity in them.

Is there one moment or one particular story from this project that really stuck with you?

The most powerful one for me was a woman who was 33 weeks pregnant when she had a really bad case of COVID. She was quite sick and had to have an emergency C-section to save the child, and they didn't know if she was going to survive. Luckily, both she and the baby did make it and they're doing well now. But that one still gives me goosebumps.

Is it a challenge to communicate traumatic memories like that through your art and retelling?

I think that the challenge is to take stories that are so much more full – almost a year of people's life experience – and condense it into a very short, consumable story that someone would want to read on social media or in a news story. That's the biggest challenge for me because some of these people live through very traumatic experiences

Do you think about the lasting footprint this will leave? Could this serve as a time capsule to capture the feelings that a lot of people had during this strange time?

Yeah, absolutely I do. I didn't start out with the intention of creating that, but when I had produced most of the work and looked back at it, I felt like it's documentation in a way of a moment in time that is so wild. It’s such a different experience than any of us had ever lived, and that's captured in the stories and experiences of the people who are featured in the project.

Alex is KUNC's reporter covering the Colorado River Basin. He spent two years at Aspen Public Radio, mainly reporting on the resort economy, the environment and the COVID-19 pandemic. Before that, he covered the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery for KDLG in Dillingham, Alaska.
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