Celebrating Our Heroes on National Latina Day August 20, 2022!


National Latina Day
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Today we honor Latinas who are mitigating health inequities and disparities in the Latino community for National Latina Day on Aug. 20, 2022.

Here are their stories of resilience, hard work, and success.

Dr. Amelie G. Ramirez

Meet Amelie G. Ramirez, DrPH, an internationally recognized researcher and director of Salud America! and its home base, the Institute for Health Promotion Research at UT Health San Antonio. She is also Chair of the Department of Population Health Sciences, and Associate Director of Cancer Outreach and Engagement at Mays Cancer Center at UT Health San Antonio. Amelie has spent more than 30 years reducing chronic disease and cancer health disparities affecting Latinos through human and organizational communication research.

Q: What inspired you to choose this field?

A: My background started in psychology, and I thought, “Maybe I can go and make a difference in people’s lives. I’ve always enjoyed working with people in the community.” So that’s how I started my first job in Laredo for a health organization that focused on researching health needs in South Texas. While I was working there, I was inspired to get a master’s degree in public health so I could study health behaviors and motivate people to take better care of their health.

After completing my master’s in public health, my next job was at the Baylor College of Medicine, where I saw a need for communication and health disparity research. I also noticed a lack of health information offered in Spanish. These elements really influenced my decision to focus my career on helping Latinos live healthier lives.

I later got the opportunity to become a program coordinator for a new tobacco prevention project at the UT Health School of Public Health in Houston. The position required my family to move to San Antonio, and we were up for the challenge.

As I grew in that position my mentor encouraged me to think about getting a doctoral degree. At that time, there were no public health doctoral programs being offered in the San Antonio area. The closest one was in Houston. I said, “Okay, but how do I make it work? I live and work in San Antonio.” My mentor worked with me to allow me to work full time while taking classes in Houston. I’m just grateful that Southwest Airlines had really cheap fares at the time. I would fly to Houston, take as many classes as I could in one day, fly home to San Antonio, and do my homework at night. It was a very challenging program because my instructors and professors were also my work colleagues, so I really set a high standard to be an exemplary student.

What challenges did you overcome in your career?

While getting my doctoral degree, it was hard because I was working full time while raising a young family. My husband would get ready to take the kids somewhere and I would have to stay behind to study or get ready for a test. It took a lot of family coordination. Your spouse needs to be on the same page to support you. It took me three years, but we worked it out, and it was it was the best thing that could have happened to me.

Q:What advice do you have to other Latinas who want to pursue a similar career?

A: I think that the best advice that I would give is to really know where you are in your family life, because you must have a good support system to meet your goals. Make sure you have a strong team and that you’re all on the same page.

Also, never take no for an answer. There is always a way to accomplish your goals. I recommend setting up a good team of mentors at different levels. There’s mentors that are your lifelong friends. There’s mentors that are curriculum oriented. And then there are mentors who are your peers. Having mentors at these three levels has truly made a difference for me.

Q: Why should Latinas be celebrated?

A: I think more than ever Latinas should be proud of who we are. Our culture has a lot of positive values, like vibrancy, family, and religiosity. Not losing our identity is important. Latinos are now the majority minority, which means we are the largest minority population in the US, but we are not necessarily recognized for our achievements. We should be proud of our heritage and the contributions we bring to the table.

Also, all women really need to be recognized for juggling several things, like work, family, and school. I think now more than ever it’s our time to be recognized.

Dolores Garcia

Meet Dolores Garcia, a project coordinator for the Community Outreach and Engagement Program for the Mays Cancer Center at UT Health San Antonio. In this role, Dolores works to reduce the cancer burden in South Texas through community outreach, cancer awareness, and educational modules. She has delivered public health resources to communities for five years, and particularly enjoys giving back to the San Antonio Latino community where she grew up.

Q: What inspired you to choose this field?

A: My initial intent was to be a doctor, but when I transferred to the University of Texas at San Antonio, they recommended I major in public health. As part of that public health degree, I needed to do an internship. I interned at the American Heart Association doing community outreach, and I just fell in love. A passion grew inside of me wanting to be more on the preventative side than the treatment side of healthcare. Through this internship, I learned that we need community health workers to reach diverse populations and provide health information in a culturally tailored way.

Now that community health is my career, it feels so rewarding to give back to my community. One time I had someone come up to me and say, “I had no idea what a diet looked like for a diabetic. And here I am eating all these things that I am not supposed to be eating. Now that you have explained it in Spanish, I know exactly what to do.” A month later he had lost 15 pounds. The advice that I gave in his native language really helped him. It was super rewarding.

Q: What challenges have you overcome in your career?

A: I was born in Mexico and moved to the United States when I was six years old. I grew up in a very traditional Mexican household where family is number one. You do what your parents say and me not going to medical school like I originally planned was huge for my dad. He wanted me to be successful and being a doctor was the perceived successful career. I had to explain that I was going another route with my career and would still be successful. Going against what they wanted caused me to struggle with finding an identity where I was not completely losing my Mexican culture, but also not assimilating too much to the American culture.

Now, he is so supportive. All that concern and doubt that he had at the beginning has gone away, but it took work on my end to demonstrate that I did not have to become a doctor to have a successful career. That was a big challenge for me. But fortunately, it got better.

Q: What advice do you have to other Latinas who want to pursue a similar career?

A: Do something you are truly passionate about. Know that even when you are doing what you love, there’s going to be challenges and there’s going to be barriers. There’s going to be lows, and there’s going to be a learning curve.

Sometimes you might even need a good cry. But then you can brush it off, put on red lipstick, do your hair, and say, “I’m going to keep working at it. I’ve come this far, and I can go even further.”

Q: Why should Latinas be celebrated?

A: I think women in general should be celebrated, but Latinas are resilient considering all the barriers we must overcome in our own households, sometimes with our own parents, and with our own siblings. I think we should be celebrated for how hard we work to break generational cycles of unhealthy situations.

Latinas are also very passionate and loud. When I was little, I used to hear that I laughed too loud or talked too loud with my accent. Now that I’m older, my loudness sets me apart and it should be celebrated. I’m laughing and talking loudly because I’m having fun.

Vivian Cortez

Meet Vivian Cortez! Vivian is a research coordinator at the Institute of Health Promotion Research at UT Health San Antonio. Cortez helps manage several different research studies and projects, including Quitxt, a free service to help young adults quit smoking or vaping by using free bilingual text messages with motivation, tips, testimonials, music, and more.

In her role, Cortez also assists with community outreach and engagement and occasionally gives health presentations within the community.

Q: What inspired you to choose this field?

A: I’ve always been pretty interested in health. I remember taking a public health course in undergrad and then anatomy courses, and I was like, “I’m really into this!” And soon I graduated with my bachelors in psychology. But I also did a lot of health stuff on the side. I immediately started my masters in kinesiology and health that same fall semester after I graduated.

I got to work in an a research lab for the majority of my graduate program. And while I was doing that, I also got to do behavior therapy with kids on the autism spectrum. So that involved taking data and problem solving. All of that work made me realize that I do like research. I do like seeing the difference whenever you start something and then seeing how it ends, if there’s any improvement.

Q: What challenges did you overcome in your career?

A: Whenever I started my bachelor’s and even my master’s, I really thought I wanted to do occupational therapy. So that was why I had worked at a children’s clinic to get more exposure to it, and I just realized that it wasn’t for me, and it was really hard to realize that because I really wanted it to work out. I would say that was a little tough to overcome, but I did find a great career path! But I do  feel like it sets you back a little bit with time.

I wish if I had known that occupational therapy wasn’t for me, that I could have done more research  stuff before as an undergrad or touched into different fields during college. Just so I wasn’t focused on the one route that didn’t end up working for me. It was kind of unexpected too, but it happens, and I feel like sometimes there’s a sense of disappointment around that.

Q: What advice do you have to other Latinas who want to pursue a similar career?

A: I would just say just dive into it. If you’re in college and a professor talks about a research study that they’re doing, just try it out, see how it feels to be a research assistant and find out if that’s right for you. There’s a ton of different research fields that you can do. It doesn’t necessarily have to be with public health like I did. There’s a lot of different branches. It’s just getting exposure to it and also being okay if your plan doesn’t work out accordingly, at least be prepared with a plan B.

Q: Why should Latinas be celebrated?

A: I feel like Dr. [Amelie] Ramirez and Dr. [Patricia] Chalela are really amazing role models because of where they’re at and what they’ve accomplished. And because everything that it took for them to get to this point, especially back then when it might have been a little harder than it is now.

To see like that they’ve achieved so much, it’s really inspiring. I don’t really know how often you see Latinas getting celebrated in media, or if you do, there’s a lot of expectations put on them that they have to be perfect or fully bilingual, or you know, this and that. So, I do feel like no matter what background we have, it’s really important for us all to be celebrated. I feel like even in the home, like Latina moms, get taken for granted, too. So even just acknowledging and thanking your mom for everything that she does is important!

Dr. Patricia Chalela

Meet Dr. Patricia Chalela! Dr. Chalela has a doctorate in public health and is associate professor at the Institute for Health Promotion Research at UT Health San Antonio. Dr. Chalela appreciates that her job allows her to contribute to improving lives by designing, implementing, evaluating, and disseminating evidence-based interventions to reduce health disparities and promote health equity among Latinos and other underrepresented population groups. She is an investigator in several key projects, including the Quitxt text-message smoking cessation service, testing a mobile app in helping breast cancer patients stick with endocrine hormonal therapy, and recruiting more Latinos into clinical trials.

Dr. Chalela is proud to be part of a team of researchers led by Dr. Amelie Ramirez. Dr. Chalela and her team care about the community and are committed to investigating the causes of and solutions to the inequitable impact of cancer, disease, obesity, and social determinants among Latinos in South Texas and throughout the nation.

Q: What inspired you to choose this field?

A: I have always been passionate about helping others to improve their health and wellbeing.

As a Latina researcher, I am familiar with the unequal burden of health disparities among Latinos and how social determinants of health impact their barriers and opportunities to engage in healthy behaviors, from access to healthcare, affordable housing, healthy nutrition, opportunities for physical activity, to timely diagnosis and treatment of diseases that disproportionately affect our Latino community. My field of work allows me to collaborate with other researchers and community members to create studies and interventions to address those disparities and make a difference in people’s lives.

Q: What challenges did you overcome in your career?

A: Education has always been very important in my family. Our parents always motivated all of us to study and get educated. As my older sister did, I wanted to study abroad. So, I came to the US from Colombia, South America. Being away from my family was challenging. I had to adjust to a new culture and language. But I was committed to working hard and succeeding.

I was very fortunate to meet Dr. Amelie Ramirez when I first came to the US as a PAHO intern. She welcomed me, motivated me, and supported my academic goals. Her team members have always been caring and supportive. That made a big difference for me. With her mentorship, I completed my master’s in public health and my doctoral degree. And now, I am part of her team of researchers.

Q: What advice do you have to other Latinas who want to pursue a similar career?

A: Keep focused on your goals, and work hard to achieve them. Network whenever you can, find a good mentor, and look for opportunities; you will find them if you search for them. Don’t get discouraged. Keep moving forward.

Q: Why should Latinas be celebrated?

A: Latinas should be celebrated because we are champions in our own way! We are smart and passionate about what we do; we are dedicated, reliable, caring, and trustworthy.  We get the job done, and we do it well. Because we embrace our differences, and challenges encourage us to move forward.

We feel proud of the many Latinas before us who made a difference and impacted society. We celebrate all Latina women, mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, friends, co-workers, and leaders. Your exemplary work makes us proud, make us stronger, and guides our path. Thank you to all of you!

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