Founder/President, Día de la Mujer Latina
Houston, Texas, USA
The year was 1992, when a simple slip and fall on a flight sent me to the Emergency Room. During the exam, the doctor proceeded to ask if I had ever had a mammogram; I said, “No.” He explained that at 41, I should have had a baseline test. I asked why, and he said that mammograms can detect breast cancer in its early stages. My initial response was, “But I’m Latina. We Latinas get cervical cancer; breast cancer is a white woman’s disease.” The fact that I only saw white women on TV discussing breast cancer led me to believe that this type of cancer would not strike Latinas. The doctor convinced me to allow him to conduct a clinical breast exam, during which he discovered a lump. A few weeks later, I had a mammogram, followed by a biopsy and the bad news. I had breast cancer. Unfortunately, the oncologist remarked that he did not have time to answer my list of questions and handed me a copy of the latest New England Journal of Medicine article on breast cancer. Although, college educated, I could not read past the first paragraph.
This experience led to my first outreach mission with my family. As I convinced the women in my family to get screened for breast cancer, my sister Vicki repeatedly told me that she would go once she stopped having long menstrual periods. When I finally convinced her to seek medical treatment, I was shocked to learn that Vicki had cervical cancer. She died 9 months later.
Vicki’s death prompted me to address the lack of education on breast and cervical cancer among underserved Latinas with the development of two fotonovelas, or graphic novels in Spanish. But education was just not enough. I had to find a way to prompt Latinas toward early detection screening.
In 1997, I planned and hosted the first Health Fiesta in Atlanta, Georgia, and subsequently founded the grassroots nonprofit organization Día de la Mujer Latina (DML), Inc., through which we offered free breast and cervical cancer screening. This culturally and linguistically tailored signature program has been replicated in over 40 major cities, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. With the help of close friends, I also initiated the Promotores Program to ensure that our participants received the proper navigation within the healthcare system.
A significant moment for me and DML was being part of a Congressional Panel that resulted in the US government changing the term “Hispanic” to “Hispanic & Latino.” This marked an important point in my advocacy work in Latin Women’s Health. And, in Fall 2019, DML will bring its Promotores Training Program to the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur in Mexico.
After accepting an offer to be an Instructor at Baylor College of Medicine, I moved DML to Houston, Texas, and it became my mission to train more Promotores across the country. After DML was awarded recognition as the first Latino organization that Texas approved to train and certify Promotores/Community Health Workers (P/CHWs), I developed a series of bilingual curriculums focusing on eight core competencies, including emergency preparedness and disaster recovery. In 2017, while recovering from a recurrence of breast cancer, I was able to equip many of our P/CHWs to serve over 8,000 Houstonians who were impacted by Hurricane Harvey.
We have trained and certified over 3,000 P/CHWs in Texas alone. This year, the Governor issued a Proclamation declaring April 8 Promotores/Community Health Workers Day in Texas, which triggered a series of opportunities to educate and serve. These trusted members of our communities—P/CHWs—are equipped to motivate vulnerable populations toward early detection screening, inform them about local resources, navigate them through the complicated healthcare system, and educate them about chronic and infectious diseases.
DML continues to be actively engaged in community outreach and engagement, specifically to underserved populations.