It’s Saturday, or Day 7 of the 16-hour-workday streak for Susana and Susy Rojas, the mother and daughter duo who run the Community Wellness Team for the UCSF/Latino Task Force test and research campaigns.
The mother, 48, and daughter, 27, huddle over a desk strewn with papers and a laptop. Susy runs her eyes over the latest list of San Franciscans who tested positive for Covid-19 and need help. Like the hundreds the team has attended to since the first testing and research campaign in April, most are low-income Latinx residents, and many are the men and women who deliver groceries, work construction or care for the elderly. They cannot shelter in place.
As the names come in, the Rojases deploy case managers and drivers to drop off tote bags of food, sanitizing supplies and gift cards. Because this particular campaign used rapid tests, the response has been immediate, with teams going out on the same day someone tested. On any given day, 60 to 65 residents test positive, and a majority of those need and opt for help.
“Everything is so fast, which is something that we really want,” Susana said. “It’s a good problem to have.”
It’s been good, but relentless: By the seventh day, 160 people have tested positive and need assistance, many from the same households. By the last campaign day, the teams will have helped 475 people. On the very last day, a household of four generations showed up for testing. All turned out to be positive.
Even on Day 7, mother and daughter are looking over the latest names and could see that the pace was not letting up. A delivery man lets himself into the sunlit workspace. Minutes before, Susana burnt sage leaves and the smell filled the room.
He has questions about some addresses, plus his gloves don’t fit right, he said. Susy listens attentively and looks for other gloves. Her mom interjects, teasing the man — also her lifelong friend — about how big his hands must be, and does he want some breakfast before heading out again?
No time, he explains. But before he leaves Susana marvels, “Remember when you first met Susy, she was 8-months-old in a stroller?”
A lot has changed since then.
Now, Susy works alongside her in community service, a vocation the daughter never imagined. Susy’s passion is animals. As a Sept., 2019, University of California Davis graduate in wildlife biology, she thought she’d be wading in wetlands in 2020 instead of traipsing Target aisles for extra sanitary wipes that would soon be stuffed in covid care packages. But as covid hit in March, her diabetic mom inevitably joined the front lines of the Latino Task Force’s response, due to her role as a longtime community activist and current executive director of nonprofit Calle 24 Latino Cultural District. Because of the risk, Susy wanted to be nearby.
“It’s like I care about you or something,” Susy dead-panned to her mom, rolling her eyes.
Susy joined the Latino Task Force in April just as it began the first of many covid testing and research campaigns with UCSF in the Mission District. The results would show how Latinx residents, the hardest hit demographic in San Francisco, could not afford to stay home and often lived in crowded housing. With a high incidence of asymptomatic virus, they were unwittingly passing the virus on to family members.
From the start, the researchers and community agreed that testing was pointless without a response that helped covid-positive residents isolate.
That need birthed Community Wellness Teams, a “community caring for community” model for aftercare follow-up and resource delivery that Valerie Tulier-Laiwa, who is on the executive committee of the Latino Task Force, would like to see duplicated around the city.
On the wellness team, Susy was tapped as one of the members who would be sick residents’ first-point-of-contact. Her empathetic conversations with them impressed UCSF researchers and the Latino Task Force early on.
“[Susana and Susy] are incredibly competent at being able to translate between what’s the difference between a PCR test and a Binax [rapid] test, which a lot of people don’t get — and shouldn’t have to get,” said Diane Jones, former UCSF HIV nurse and leader in Unidos en Salud testing campaigns. And when it comes to Susy, “she approaches the work like her mother — with a great sense of love and respect for her community.”
When a sick San Franciscan calls Susy, she answers in her usual hushed tone; hardly any expression crosses her face. She’s listening. Intently. And while she does, she’s taking detailed notes.
This demeanor, added to a knack for spreadsheets, led to her promotion as the Community Wellness Team Coordinator.
And, as the Latino Task Force communications chair, Susana has been one of the main leaders in overseeing community outreach; she often helps Susy with the wellness teams. On grocery runs, the two brainstorm about how to streamline the process. As they work, they interrupt each other constantly: “stop touching your face,” “I need your password” and “hey, remember Carnaval that one year? Was the costume green or blue?”
While her daughter is quiet and serious, Susana is a natural chatterbox, easily laughing and joking with colleagues, greeting testers and generally making everyone feel at ease with a huge grin and a singsongy, playful voice. Mom has a greater affinity (and patience) for people, her daughter says.
What they share, colleagues said, is a seriousness about their work that any team prizes.
“We talk all the time about work,” Susy said. “Even in the shower. I’ll put her on speaker-phone.”
Their work has become so intertwined that sometimes newcomers at the site mix them up. Fair enough: Outwardly, they are starkly similar in height, appearance, and even name: Susy’s name stems from Susana, which is also the name of Susana’s mom and great-grandmother. “Her name was really important because she has her ancestors with her wherever she goes, no matter what. She’s protected at all times,” Susana said, adding Susy not only has her grandmother’s name, but those of her mother’s sisters as well.
The name is meant to protect and inspire. Susana’s mother, Susana Buendía, “was an all-around badass. Ahead of her time. We have a lot to live up to,” said Susana.
Although patriarchy is the norm in her homeland, Buendía, a former nurse who is now 84 and lives doors down from her daughter and granddaughter, ran the household in Bogotá, Colombia. She was also in the first motorcycle brigade, initiated a strike at the hospital she worked at, and fed farmworkers in her community, Susana said. When she had to have a complicated surgery, the doctor told her she would never walk again. Buendía rejected that idea, hired a physical therapist and, in months, proved him wrong.
That can-do mindset followed Buendía and Susana when they immigrated alone to New York. The two worked side by side at the same plant, where they packed airplane food. Then two became three; at 20, Susana got pregnant with Susy.
It was Buendía that accompanied Susana to the hospital on the day Susy was born, not Susana’s ex. Susana half-groans and half-laughs, remembering how her mother stubbornly insisted she walk to the hospital to induce labor. So, with her mother at her side, shepherding her through the busy New York streets, they walked. Buendía was bedside as Susy came into the world.
Soon after, Buendía and Susana moved to San Francisco to be near her other sister, Yolanda. Susana snagged a job as a secretary at what’s now Trinity Presbyterian Church at 23rd and Capp streets, and discovered a small girl who would wait on the stoop unattended every day until her parents picked her up. She asked the church if she could supervise her, which blossomed into an off the cuff daycare. Tracy Brown Gallardo, who ran Mission Girls at the time, took notice and offered Susana a job as an assistant.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” Susana said, but she loved kids and serving her community. She worked there for five years, and then returned in 2012 as its director.
In between, Susana spent 11 years at the Boys and Girls clubs in both the Upper and Lower Mission, where she oversaw 30 to 40 kids. One of the boys from the Columbia Park Clubhouse on 450 Guerrero St., Victor Serrano, was 12 when he met Susana. She coached him through the murders of his friend and his “own harm,” Serrano said. “Really, we all gravitated toward her.”
Because of Susana, he is now a Street Violence Intervention and Prevention worker in the city. But her mother also influenced Serrano’s childhood. He jokes Buendía is his “gangster grandma” who scolded him to get off the streets and go to the Club on 16th St. and Mission, where he could avoid street violence. “Susana’s mom — that’s where the heart is at,” Serrano said.
And watching Susy grow up has been an extra treat; he recalled Susy in tow at the Boys and Girls Club, pensive even at 6 or 7. Yet by high school, whether Susy volunteered to or was “voluntold” to, she’d meet Susana wherever she was after class let out to go over nonprofit work receipts or to pitch in at events. “The reflection of the woman Susy has become is the biggest compliment to Susana,” Serrano said.
Even now, the women are inseparable. Susy, Susana, Susana’s mother, and Susana’s sister Yolanda all live in the same complex in the “TenderNob” neighborhood. Pre-covid, they visited so frequently that only “mailing addresses” distinguished one household from another.
The proximity lends Buendía glimpses of her kin’s impact and growth. “I am so proud of the work they’re doing in this difficult time,” she said in Spanish. “I’m so happy they’re continuing the fight.”
This experience will last a while, but not forever. When the pandemic winds down, Susana and Susy will take a long vacation. “With no one knowing where we are, and our phones off so people can’t reach us,” Susana added.
After that, Susana will continue on serving the Mission. Susy will return to the wildlife world, possibly away from the city. But Susana said she’s grateful the two are making an impact in one of the world’s most tragic recent times.
“We’re partners in crime,” Susana said. Susy nodded, and then clarified: “Partners in salud.”