I am humbled when I look at the list of previous winners, leaders that I admire in the field of health promotion. Truly, the Early Career Award is an honor.
It is validation that I am doing good work – I especially appreciate this recognition because I have not always felt my work was understood.
As writers write what they know, I study what I know. My research aims to understand how to communicate with bicultural Latino audiences to improve the health of this growing and at-risk population.
I am myself Mexican-American and my intellectual journey started with my own uncomfortable reckoning with identity. As a young child, I was brought to the United States from Mexico. In that era – the early 80s – and in that place – rural Texas – it was advised that immigrants shed their markers of identification from wherever they came from. So I moved here and was immediately immersed in an English-language world. Within six months my sister and I were fluent in English and Spanish was reserved for summers, when we would get shipped to my abuelita’s house in Mexico. There, my cousins would tease me about my American ways. But at home in Texas and then Arizona, I knew I was not fully American. Despite my parents’ attempts to integrate we would always be outsiders. We looked different and – even if my sister and I managed to escape with no accent, our parents did not. Plus we had funny names.
Even though we lived in regions with substantial Latino populations, we always lived where the good schools were. Which is to say, we lived in majority-Caucasian neighborhoods. But of course I was surrounded – in Texas, Arizona, and California – by a broader culture where there were substantial Latino populations. And so when people talked about “diversity,” it was presumed that Latinos were part of that diversity.
So when I arrived at the University of Pennsylvania for my doctoral studies, I could not put my finger on why I felt so unmoored. I had heard that Philadelphia was a diverse city, but all I saw was black and white. What I figured out was that people used “diverse” as a code to indicate the presence of African-Americans. What was missing for me – what made me feel unmoored – was the Latino population!
At this time I started learning about race in the media and health disparities among African-Americans and the ways in which communication could both contribute to but also help to alleviate health disparities.
So based on my own experiences, I got curious. I started asking questions about ethnicity – in media representations, media effects, and health outcomes, and I got blank stares or at best, the response that little was known.
And so I started looking into the literature myself, and I found research in health promotion among Latinos. What I found was that almost all of this research was done exclusively with Spanish-speaking populations and was really focused on the challenge of translating appropriately.
But this felt incomplete to me, because I knew that Latinos don’t just speak Spanish. And I was learning that population trends support my personal experience: The growth of the Latino population isn’t – and hasn’t been for a while – from new, Spanish-speaking immigrants – it’s from the children of immigrants who will grow up entirely in the United States, and are disproportionately likely to suffer from preventable risk factors and poor health outcomes.
And that is how I developed my research agenda.
I am gratified that I am no longer the only person talk about the need to move beyond thinking about language as a way to convey health information to Latinos. There is a lot of work to be done, since I still get people telling me about how they translate materials to Spanish as the entirety of their Latino outreach, but I do see more work coming out, not just from me, that is trying to tease out aspects of the Latino experience that affect how we communicate effectively about health with Latinos.
So I am grateful for the honor of the Early Career Award in recognition of my contributions to this field.
But – the Early Career Award is not just an honor.
It is also a challenge. When I look at the list of previous winners, I am humbled by their great accomplishments AFTER their Early Career phase. So, the challenge of the Early Career Award is this: You have done well so far, but you have the potential to do great things.
I am thankful for the intellectual home that I have found in the Health Communication Working Group of APHA.
To all of you: THANK YOU for having the confidence to grant me this honor and to challenge me to greater achievements.
I humbly accept the challenge.