A Latinx Perspective on Health and Wellness
Written by Hannah Martinez
Why is it that nearly forty percent of Latinxs either do not have a physician or have not seen one in the last year? Why are people of Latinx descent less likely to seek healthcare, even when needed? Why does the Latinx community turn to herbal remedies like botánicas before seeking out primary care? And why, when given the chance to sign up for affordable healthcare under the Affordable Care Act, did so many Latinxs forego the opportunity?
For nearly twenty five percent of Latinxs, healthcare can mean exposure of their undocumented status and its consequences. When time came to sign up for healthcare through the ACA, many Latinxs stayed home. In California, one Latino who signed up for the ACA detailed reasons why others chose not to.
“A lot of [Latinx] people don’t come because they’re afraid” - Ruben Acosta
Acosta, despite his status as a legal immigrant, still had fears and anxieties about signing up for healthcare. Immigrant women are forgoing reproductive healthcare as well, citing fears of deportations and increasing numbers of ICE raids.
I have seen this fear firsthand in my own family. My father’s side of the family remains mostly undocumented, and whenever faced with medical issues, they travel south of the border to receive care. My father’s mother has had multiple surgeries for chronic back pain in Mexico, and my mother's sister frequently makes the trip to stock up on traditional herbal remedies. With all of this in play, it comes as no surprise that the Latinx community does not trust the current system. This is especially true after the highly publicized case of Blanca Borrego, an undocumented woman who was promptly arrested by law enforcement after a visit to her gynecologist’s office.
Even when Latinxs have legal immigrant status or citizenship, they still do not seek healthcare. To many Latinxs, pain and sickness is something that is just another part of life, this is a mindset that has pervaded through generations. For example, my grandfather ignored pains in his liver for years and now has advanced cirrhosis. Similarly, my aunt ignored the obvious red flags until she was ultimately diagnosed with stage four liver cancer. Even I tried to downplay intense inflammation in my wrists and shoulders, dismissing it as carpal tunnel syndrome until a routine physical revealed that I have rheumatoid arthritis.
Why do Latinxs without undocumented status still refuse medical care?
There are several reasons. One is the aforementioned mindset; another is the pervasiveness of alternative healthcare among the Latinx community. Many Latinxs turn to alternative forms of medicine like their mother's botànicas (herbal tea) or dietary supplements when they find themselves facing an illness or a chronic disease. When I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, the first thing my grandmother did was take me to the local herbal supply store to purchase anti-inflammatory herbs and supplements like turmeric. Unfortunately, some alternative medications were fastidiously rejected by my family. Medical marijuana, a viable option for pain relief, was deemed completely out of the picture despite its proven results. Treatments like acupuncture were also dismissed.
To many Latinxs, undocumented and legal, these herbal remedies are more reliable than American medicine. American healthcare is seen as sterile, cold, and intrusive by many Latinxs, riddled with personal questions about menstrual cycles, mental well-being, and sexual activity that are often topics of taboo amongst the community.
My mother and her sisters never had a discussion concerning their sexual health or development. When they began having periods, each of them panicked, thinking they were going to die. My grandmother silently handed them pads, and it was never talked about. My mother still remembers the first time her gynecologist began openly discussing periods and sexual activity; she was mortified. Latinx women feel uncomfortable discussing such taboo topics in such sterile environments.
“They never ask you more than your symptoms, and when you want to share more, they cut you off,” one Latina said in a 2008 study. Latinxs want more than the fast, cold healthcare most physicians provide; they want trusting relationships with healthcare providers. When physicians violate this privacy, as they often do in medical settings, Latinxs have even less reason to seek medical care. One Latina recounted the harrowing tale of how medical students witnessed the birth of her third child, an incredibly private moment, without her knowledge nor consent.
With all the stigmas that exist, we need to find efficient ways of normalizing the American healthcare system as well as the many other topics considered to be taboo. Too many people have died from curable disease due to neglect and improper information. We can be the change that is necessary for future generations by simply starting the conversation!
The physician didn’t tell me there will be medical students watching... I was so embarrassed and angry.”