As I ask my parents about their day over dinner, our connection freezes. Although it is frustrating, we end up laughing at the silly frozen faces on the screen. Living far away from home, and this reminder of social distancing inside our own families made me wonder: How have people adapted their use of technology to maintain their cultural practices during this pandemic? How is technology not serving us? And most importantly, how can we make it better?
As a doctoral student from Central America studying in the United States, my position is both as a Latina and as a foreigner. In this piece, through my own experiences, observations, conversations with family and friends, I reflect on how online technology use has changed and has been useful in times of COVID-19, and point out important gaps that are left unattended. Afterwards, I propose participatory design as a methodology that can be used to help create culturally responsive tools for Latinx communities as well as many other cultures, during times of crisis.
COVID-19 has dramatically affected the whole world. In the United States, preliminary data suggests that Latinx communities have had disproportionately large death rates (CDC, 2020). While the official numbers show aggregated COVID data, there are changes in our communities that are less publicized but just as prevalent for our daily lives. The pandemic and access to technology has brought positive changes for some, by reducing commuting time, or being more aware of online resources, like my dinner calls. However, there are still gaps in areas such as intergenerational use, access to technology, technology literacy, and the interruption of community life, cultural practices and values. Strong interpersonal relationships is a core value of Latinx communities (Rojas, 2018) and is usually done through in-person relationships. This closeness produces benefits such as emotional support, strong social networks, and even support with childcare and food. Yet, these connections have been radically altered because of social distancing, and people around me are leveraging technology to maintain them. Two examples of these changes are food and grief.
Rituals around food
In Latinx households, food is a uniting force, a social event, a way of building communal identity, and strengthening relationships and social structures through verbal and non-verbal cues at the table (Perez, 2010). Events and traditions are remembered by replicating methods and recipes handed down in the family. This formation of collective memory, Perez argues, also reinforces identity by tracing a line between what is Latinx culture and what is foreign.
During this crisis, food has become a beacon of hope and gratitude, and also a symbol of longing for a connection. Before the pandemic, sharing a meal or family reunions were reserved for frequent in-person meetings. Now, families like mine are facing a new level of distancing, and virtual meals have become an option, translating the social and cultural context of a table to an online space. Giving food is also a common sign of care in Latinx culture. Even though delivery service is a treat mostly due to economic reasons and a general preference for cooking at home, friends and family are ordering online more often in solidarity with local businesses, and to keep the traditional connection. Unfortunately, transitioning these practices to online formats is not always a feasible option due to factors, such as income, access to internet and technology, and technology literacy. Technology also does not completely cover the richness of interactions and the cultural significance of a meal. As a friend told me, “During lockdown I’ve realized it’s not the food that I miss, it’s the context. I miss the interaction of eating with friends and everything that goes around the food. Food can be replaceable, but you can’t replace people.” (Priscilla).
Rituals around grief
Latinx communities’ relationship with death vary between countries and communities, but there are common factors such as inclusion of religious beliefs, and deep social networks (Munet, 1998). Examples of common rituals are novenas, wakes, and Dia de los muertos. During the time of grief, hugs, and collective and individual mourning are expected. Family and friends partake in one or more rituals to grieve for their loved one, and support each other in other ways such as providing food. This network also provides mental health support, and collective memory-making by telling stories of their loved one (Munet, 1998).
Social distancing has restricted participation, causing an emotional disruption because key aspects of mourning are interrupted in every step. Before COVID-19, technology was mostly used as a secondary tool to support the lived in-person ritual, notifying persons of the details of the death and the rituals to follow, but not as a form of participating in the ritual itself. Thus, technology is seen as impersonal and distant, so now, using these technologies creates an uncomfortable feeling of distance, isolation, and loneliness. For example, calls were usually from acquaintances of the departed or family who live far away, but now it is the only channel of communication, leaving close family members feeling alienated. Some members of younger generations are turning to online solutions to involve others and ease the pain. As a friend commented after experiencing a loss, “Now that we’re doing the rezos for my abuela, since we can’t do them live, we’re doing them on Facebook live so family and friends can pray with us. I thought no one would show up, but some people tuned in. My aunt still came to my house.” (Sara)
Technology and Participatory Design
The use of mobile technology and internet amongst Latinx people has been increasing in the last decade (Brown, Lopez, & Lopez, 2016). Before COVID-19, it was used as a maintenance tool for in-person relationships by facilitating asynchronous sharing, and chatting with family members who live far away. Now, technology is used as a substitute for in-person interactions, helping maintain the feeling of community, and connectedness. Yet, its increased usage has revealed issues, cultural needs and values that have not been met. Factors such as socioeconomic status have affected access to online technology, and those who have low technological literacy now find themselves isolated from their communities. For example, prior to COVID-19 my dad would go to my grandma’s house and show her family photos or start a video call with us; now I have no way of communicating directly with her. Visitations were both social and technological- a guest brings the whole community in their pocket.
Reflecting on the changes brought by social distancing and ways in which technology has not served us, I then ask: How can we enrich our designs with cultural practices and values to enhance technology uses? How can we envision new avenues for ameliorating pain and bringing much desired connectedness in times of collective hurt in a culturally responsive way?
Participatory design is a methodology for designing tools and technology based on a collectivist perspective of society and social development, where the users and community are involved from the beginning and play a critical role in the process (Simonsen & Robertson, 2013). The stakeholders, usually users and designers, “cooperatively make or adjust systems, technologies and artefacts in ways which fit more appropriately to the needs of those who are going to use them.” (Simonsen & Robertson, 2013). Harrington et al. (2019) points out that “the democratic underpinning of community-based design suggests that collaborative design research engagements center and uplift the voices of individuals who are typically neglected or do not readily see political power”. Minoritized communities are often forgotten, forced to use resources that are designed for other populations ignoring their particular needs, culture, or even language. However, by bringing them into the design methods, we make sure they are the center of design. I do not believe that a single design method will solve systemic inequalities. Rather, the richness of PD lies in providing a space for co-creation by lifting the voices and working from within communities, using their own cultural values, practices and existing resources as a base, so both technological and non-technological tools can be developed as a response to their own needs.
Participatory design has already been used to produce culturally and age responsive research and tools. For example, Vacca (2019) used PD to work with Latina teenagers to design tools for emotional wellbeing and navigating their relationship with their caregivers. One of the tools, “Mom, chill”, is a website/app showing a series of images linked to articles that addresses concerns Latinx mothers have about their daughters. This application is meant to help address the conflict in gender role expectations in Latinx communities, a push against cultural norms of a “good Latina girl”. Another example of PD is the Building Bridges project (Wherton & Prendergast, 2009), where they developed a communication technology with elderly people in Dublin, to facilitate social interactions and decrease loneliness. It integrated a new tablet with a landline phone they were familiarized with. Features included a simplified interface for messaging, calling one or more people, broadcasts, where they can see news or documentaries and then join a group chat of viewers, and a “tea room”, a 24/7 chat room where they can talk or listen in to conversations (Grattini et al, 2012).
General research related to social distancing effects is in its initial, exploratory phase (E.g.: Austen Riggs Center, 2020; Williams et al, 2020). However, there are many avenues to follow, especially in developing tools and practices that would facilitate the inclusion of unmet cultural needs and social practices, like rituals around food and grief. These tools may be digital or non-digital, but the key aspect is re-imagining our rich social interactions as Latinx during a pandemic. One example would be repurposing technology to uses it was not originally designed for, such as using Facebook or Twitch to stream novenas. Using PD, we can ask Latinx people that have lost loved ones about their experience live streaming their rituals. Then, we can work together to create tools to restore community support during mourning with social distancing. A second example is addressing the isolation that our abuelos are facing during this pandemic. Through PD, we can work together based on their needs in a similar way to Building Bridges. How can we create new routines and tools that incorporate their usual activities and social networks in another new way? In my family, I imagine re-designing the “tea room”, so my abuela can have la hora del café visiting with family, or watch her favorite novela while reacting live with her friends.
While technology has left needs unmet in Latinx communities during COVID19, participatory design can help us achieve a better juxtaposition between cultural needs and technology. Moving forwards, technology makers and researchers should consider this method to adapt or create culturally responsive tools for minoritized communities in times of crisis like this pandemic.
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Image artist: Alberto Collado Umaña (family member of the author and drawn specifically for this piece)
Maria J. Anderson-Coto is a Ph.D. student at University of California, Irvine. Her main topic of study is communities around video games and technology. Maria is interested in how technologies and games can help minoritized communities through co-design in topics such as wellbeing, diversity, and social change. She is also interested in how game skills, tools, and communities can be valuable assets to apply in design-thinking.