Karen Roxana Victorio made the illustrations for a lotería card deck that Eden United Church of Christ in Hayward is using to increase awareness among its parishioners about the importance of the COVID-19 vaccine. Credit: Brian Krans

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The meetings of the Alameda County Vaccine Community Advisory Group have been much quieter lately. 

Formed to address equity issues surrounding COVID-19 vaccine distribution, the group of residents and representatives of community-based organizations from across the county has tempered its approach as demand for vaccines dwindles. The sense of urgency around mass outreach has given way to more targeted efforts tailored to meet people where they’re most comfortable, from houses of worship to their childrens’ school campuses. 

At the meeting on June 1, the Rev. Dr. Arlene Nehring, senior minister of Eden United Church of Christ in Hayward, was quick and enthusiastic to share the church’s latest tool: a COVID-19-themed lotería, a bingo-like game familiar to many Mexican families. 

Eden United is handing out 500 copies of the game during its regular food distribution, which happens on the second and fourth Wednesday of every month. 

The card images were created by 19-year-old Karen Roxana Victorio, a first-year student at Chico State studying animation and a member of the church. 

“It’s for them to enjoy having this traditional game, as well as learning and understanding about the pandemic,” Victorio said during an in-person interview with The Oaklandside at Eden United.

Illustrated over a week and a half on the Samsung tablet her sister gave her for her birthday, Victorio made 16 different cards representing all-too-familiar aspects of the pandemic, from a crown-wearing coronavirus to rolls of toilet paper, the latter of which is titled, “El Pánico.” The deck also has cards featuring COVID-19 tests, the vaccine, and even “El Trabajador de Casa,” which depicts a man with a handlebar mustache wearing a dress shirt, sweatpants, and house slippers. 

On of Victorio’s lotería cards, “El Trabajador de Casa,” depicts a man wearing a dress shirt with sweatpants and slippers. Credit: Brian Krans

One card represents popular video streaming services binged over the last 15 months, and another has a person sitting in front of a computer on Zoom, which Victorio used to finish her last year at Hayward High and her entire first year at Chico State. 

Seeing friends and family also being impacted by the pandemic, Victorio decided to turn her observations and feelings about it all into art. When Nehring, who everyone knows as “Pastor Arlene,” said she’d pay her to make images for a lotería, Victoria saw the project as an opportunity for her community to learn about the importance of being vaccinated and taking precautions like wearing face masks and getting COVID-19 tests, while also having fun. 

“My entire thinking was to get this information out there,” she said. “Coming from a Hispanic background, particularly a Mexican background, I know we can be very stubborn.”

Victorio paid special attention to the 14th card, which depicts the vaccine. She chose to put the Pfizer vaccine on the card, as that was the one people were talking about first. It’s also the shot approved for anyone 12 years or over.

As of Thursday, nearly 78% of all county residents had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. In Oakland, that number is 76%. But in Cherryland and Ashland, both unincorporated areas of Alameda County that Eden United serves, those numbers drop to 66% and 63%, respectively. Those areas also have more Black and Latino residents than other parts of the county. 

“Those are the populations we’re trying to reach,” Nehring said. “We tripled our staff to do this work, and most of our staff is bilingual, Spanish and English, but we have like 12 languages on our staff.”  

Many of the families in Eden United’s congregation face a tough choice every day: wait in line for a vaccine or get in a truck for a job that pays $11 an hour.  

Cherryland, which is tucked in between the I-238 and I-880 freeways just northwest of Hayward, has the highest unemployment rate in Alameda County. Nehring said the area is going through two crises at once.

“We’re going to be crawling out for a long time because people didn’t have piggy banks,” she said. “People had to empty their savings accounts by the second month of the pandemic.”

Many more will need to be vaccinated before the pandemic is truly behind us. But getting residents in the area who haven’t already been vaccinated to change their thinking is a daily struggle, according to Nehring. Some tend to shy away from the “sad and scary things,” she said, so the hope is that approaches like the COVID-19 lotería can act as ice-breakers to a larger, more difficult conversation about the pandemic.

“Not everyone has a primary care physician. Not everyone has a happy relationship with Western medicine,” Nehring said. “It’s really brought home, in my mind, the necessity of understanding the uniqueness of the cultures in our community and finding culturally relevant, culturally sensitive and appropriate ways that we can engage with people. It’s literally a matter of life and death.”

Victorio knows that conversation, as she had to combat misinformation circulating on social media, particularly Facebook, when convincing her mother to get the vaccine.

That’s why she was excited to make a game many people in her community already know well. 

“I wanted to make it fun, not only for adults but for kids because they need to be well aware that they’re living in a place where everything’s changing and, unfortunately, we’re not going to go back to normal,” she said. “They’re going to have to understand that things are different now.”

Victorio’s favorite lotería cards are “El Cubrebocas” and “La Prueba,” or face masks and tests, two of the earliest intervention methods available in the pandemic. 

But Victorio said she’s still in shock that the pandemic is real, and never thought there would be a time when everyone was required to wear masks in public. The lotería, she said, can be a way to talk about where and why we’re still wearing masks, and why people need to get their shots.

Nehring said the response to the game has been positive, namely among children. “One of the reasons I thought it would be a helpful tool for our community is because it’s pretty boring for a lot of people. It was pretty monotonous. This is an inexpensive game that can be played with lots of different ages.” 

Families are encouraged to upload a photo of themselves playing the game to Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #EdenC19loteria to be entered in a drawing to win a $50 gift card in addition to the $50 gift cards from the state. The hashtag also points people to information about the vaccines and where to schedule an appointment to get one. 

“It’s a connection to other resources that people can use as well,” Victorio said. 

Nehring said Victorio is just one of the highly motivated people the church has brought on to help the Cherryland and surrounding community fare better than they have during the pandemic. Many of them are recent high school or college graduates who saw their plans abruptly upended last year. 

“They’re helping in a profound way [as] people that have a deep knowledge of the neighborhood and they’re able to bring that knowledge to help us get healthier,” she said. 

Victorio said she’d feel great if her version of lotería helped convince people to get vaccinated because she sees the message behind her art as just as important as the images she creates. 

“It’d make me really happy knowing that people are actually taking this seriously and having them realize their lives are on the line,” she said. “It’s kind of great to have that warm feeling that this is actually working, not only as a game, but as information for them to understand.” 

Follow illustrator Karen Roxana Victorio on Instagram: @itz_meren

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the food giveaways at Eden Unity take place on the first and last Wednesday of each month. They in fact take place on the second and fourth Wednesday of each month. The story was updated on June 11, 2021, to reflect this.