Ontario’s Vargas pioneers health initiatives, at home and statewide

Maria Vargas, 37, created the Oregon Health Authority’s Spanish Facebook page. (Submitted photo)

ONTARIO – Like many Latinx kids, Maria Vargas perfected her Spanish through translation. Most information in Ontario, where she grew up, was in English only. While her father could speak English, her mother couldn’t, so Vargas necessarily became an interpreter, always keeping her mother up to speed on what was going on.

“Anytime we were in a store, restaurant, school, doctor’s office or there was a letter/document/sign in English, I interpreted or translated it for my mom,” said Vargas, now 37. “It wasn’t because she didn’t want to speak English or she didn’t try. Learning a new language is challenging and involves more than just knowledge, it also involves pronunciation which is where she struggled in speaking it. Translating for her was hard sometimes, but I don’t recall feeling frustrated, it was just part of life.”

After graduating from Ontario High School at 16, Vargas didn’t go to college, but she continued to practice languages. She learned German abroad while caring for her nieces and nephews while her sister was in the military. And as an adult, Vargas has put her translation skills to use as a regional outreach coordinator with the Oregon Health Authority. 

Vargas’s professional accomplishments may not be well known in Ontario, where she’s been based for her whole career, but they’ve shaped the landscape of public health in Oregon. 

During the pandemic, she proposed and launched the state health authority’s Spanish-language Facebook page, “OHA en Español,” which currently has 6,308 followers. 

The page features infographics, blogs and Zoom recordings of “community conversations” about Covid. According to recent data provided by Vargas, in one month, it reached more than 600,000 people. About 500,000 Latinos live in Oregon.

Closer to home, Vargas is also the mind behind Valley Family Health Care’s mobile access care unit, which travels to remote parts of Malheur County to deliver care. In her previous role as communications and outreach manager for Valley Family, she wrote the grant that in 2017 won state funding for the mobile clinic.

When Vargas was a child, her parents worked in the farm fields. She is the youngest of three and carries positive memories of being cared for by the extended community of family and coworkers who worked in agriculture. 

“I have memories of being 4 or 5 and ‘helping’ top onions,” she said. “I don’t think I was much help, but my parents, brothers and sister were out there too.”

One disadvantage of her parents’ line of work was that the family didn’t have health insurance. Vargas remembers a friendly atmosphere at Valley Family Health, where there were some Spanish-speaking staff and opportunities for care, but there were always gaps. 

“There were definitely not very many forms in Spanish. Signage was also typically not in Spanish,” Vargas said. “I do think it’s better now, in ways. It feels like there’s been a growth in Spanish speakers and Spanish information.” 

That growth is in part due to the efforts of people like Vargas. Though she said her passions as a young woman were more in computer science and art, her desire to work with and help people won out when she took her job in 2009 as patient development coordinator at Valley Family Health. “From there, I learned so much and fell in love with health care work,” Vargas said. 

Vargas’s signature project at Valley Family Health was the mobile unit.

“There was a lot that went into researching and planning it, to making sure that it had what it needed to care for people,” Vargas said. “I learned about things I never imagined, like truck chassis versus bus frames, commercial driver’s license requirements, mobile connectivity equipment, mobile healthcare equipment and all sorts of things.” 

“I definitely didn’t do it alone though,” she added. “The Valley Family Health Care leadership and board were supportive and a fantastic team helped make an idea come to life.”

Collaboration and equity are themes that run through Vargas’s work. 

“I hear so much about equity throughout my work day – that is a focus in the work I do,” she said. “If I had to summarize in a simple way what equity is, it’s meeting people where they are.”

That desire led to the “OHA en Español” Facebook page. 

“When the pandemic happened, I knew people who mostly speak/understand Spanish would be frightened,” Vargas said. “There’s all of this information swirling around and things you’re supposed to do and not do, but if you can’t understand that, I imagined how scary and frustrating that would be. I wanted to do my part to make sure that people had that helpful and potentially life-saving information and knew about the resources available.”

With the Facebook page up and running now, Vargas said the team often gets thank you messages from those grateful for the information. 

“I think it’s a great page with graphics, videos, live sessions and simulcasts, (and) we try to make sure content is culturally relevant to the Latinx community,” Vargas said.

In addition to Spanish, “OHA en Español” has also featured information in Mam, an indigenous language from Guatemala. 

Still, there remain other barriers to health access for the Latinx population that Vargas hopes to address through her ongoing work. 

One is the difficulty undocumented adults face in getting health care. Vargas and her team are hoping that House Bill 3352 will make that easier by expanding health care to Oregon children who would be eligible for Medicaid but for their immigration status. HB 3352 would rename the program to Cover All People, and it would include low-income undocumented adults as well. The legislation still must be signed into law by Gov. Kate Brown.

When Vargas and her team started the Spanish Facebook page in April 2020, they wanted to do more than translate health information. That requires more creativity.

“We transcreate things,” she said. “When you’re translating, it’s word for word, but that doesn’t always work.”

Vargas explained that since words don’t always have an exact translation between two languages, it takes more than just a simple word for word translation to get the message across. 

“We look at the message in one language and then we convey that same message, but in a way that people that speak this other language will understand,” she said. 

“OHA en Español” can be visited at http://www.facebook.com/OHAespanol. In addition to sharing information relating to the pandemic, it shares information from Smokefree Oregon, EndHIV Oregon, Oregon Health Plan, Oregon Health Insurance Marketplace, Oregon Office of Emergency Management, Oregon WIC and more. 

“We’ll continue providing information on health-related and social determinants of health topics,” Vargas said.

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577. 

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