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Dr. Rogelio Sáenz is no stranger to health inequity.
Growing up along the Texas-Mexico border, he saw Latino families ripped apart by poverty, plagued by systemic bias and racism, struggling to get the healthcare they needed—yet facing a mostly white leadership not ready for change.
Sáenz’ own grandfather worked as a janitor for a local electric co-op. He couldn’t advance in the job due to extreme racism. He had to take side jobs to make extra money for his family.
As a child, Sáenz himself experienced racism in the classroom. He continuously got in trouble for speaking Spanish. He also could not hang out with his white friend outside of class.
“My white classmate invited me to his house. But then he [his classmate] came back and said, ‘Never mind, my parents said no Mexicans are allowed in our house,'” Sáenz recalls.
This inspired Sáenz to seek to lead his people toward health equity.
And although his journey toward leadership faced many obstacles, Sáenz is now a well-respected UT San Antonio researcher using data and demographics to set up social justice solutions.
Struggles in Early Childhood Education
Sáenz experienced more difficulty than racism, too.
“I would go to the basketball game at school to get food when I was hungry,” Sáenz told Salud America!
Sáenz also experienced housing insecurity.
“We were living in Section 8 housing, but my junior year of high school we got evicted,” he said.
But from an early age, Sáenz liked to read. He would buy books with the money he made helping his grandfather.
His school was highly segregated, but Sáenz knew English. This gave him a big advantage over other students who only knew Spanish.
“Most, if not all, the teachers where White,” he said. “It was not until the sixth grade I had my first Mexican-American teacher.”
This was the start of his academic journey.
Finding His Calling in College
In college, Sáenz had various majors, including physical education and accounting. He was introduced to social work, and then sociology.
His passion about wanting to know more about our history drew him to sociology.
“Sociology brought an explanation as to what was going on [inequality, racism, poverty, etc.],” Saenz said.
During this time, he discovered demography and the world of using census data to document racism, inequality, and segregation.
“Demography put the inequality in numbers,” Sáenz said.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in social work at Pan American University, now known as the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
He then set out for Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. A friend of a friend gave him a ride to Iowa, where he arrived to serious culture shock.
“There were only five Mexicans at the University of Iowa,” Sáenz said. “They were also not friendly in Iowa.”
Still, he managed to earn his master’s degree and a doctoral degree in sociology in Iowa.
A First-Hand Look at a Non-Diverse Workforce
Sáenz moved on to Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, where he began what would become a 24-year stint as a professor of sociology, including time as head of the department.
But his first impression at Texas A&M in 1986 was eye-opening.
“When I interviewed at TAMU, I expected to see more raza,” Sáenz said. “What I saw instead was a heavily white institution with a lack of diversity.”
During his time, racism reared up from time to time. This included one instance of outrage over Texas A&M hiring its first-ever staff member to focus on diversity.
Still, he is proud of several accomplishments at the university.
Sáenz was responsible for many initiatives that pushed for diversity in many areas including curriculum, staff, faculty, students. He gave full effort to recruiting local Latino students to attend Texas A&M.
Applying His Work to Fight Bias, Promote Health Equity
In 2011, Sáenz became a professor of demography at University of Texas San Antonio (UTSA), where he also served as dean of the College of Public Policy.
Sáenz is a strong believer that decision-makers need good data as a base for policies.
That is why he conducts research and data analysis on the Latino population, and studies racial/ethnic relations and immigration. He wants to give context and evidence for policymakers so that they can help respond to the challenges that Latinos face.
With the Latino population continuously growing in the city, all aspects of the economy will be impacted. When policymakers are deciding the future of the city, it is important to consider this data, especially when it comes things like housing, education, and health.
For example, take the Status of Women report.
The report, authored by Sáenz and Lily Casura with support from the City of San Antonio, uses data to show status of women in San Antonio relative to men, relative to women in the other three major cities in the state, and across racial and ethnic groups of women in San Antonio.
When Salud America! asked why this was such an important report, Sáenz said:
“In my research, there was always one thing that was consistent, and that was gender inequality including violence against women. This report has really caught the eyes of city council, and they have been really proactive in actually trying to pass policy with the help of the report.”
Saenz: A Latino Leader
Sáenz has become quite the Latino leader.
Sáenz also is working with his co-author on a second edition of their acclaimed 2015 book, “Latinos in the United States: Diversity and Change.” He’s also writing another book on the color of class, which examines the societal predicament of working-class whites in comparison to working-class African Americans and Latinos in the United States.
He continues to dive into the data to find ways to set up beneficial policy changes for health equity.
“Things have changed a bit, but most remain the same,” he said.
In 2018, Sáenz received the Cesar Estrada Chavez Award from the American Association for Access, Equity and Diversity for his leadership in support of workers’ rights and humanitarian issues.
Sáenz hopes other Latinos will follow in his footsteps or join him in his work.
“Bringing together academics, nonprofits, policymakers and collaborating for the betterment of the community is what keeps driving my research,” he said.
By The Numbers
This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.