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Forum illuminates Latina-health issues

By Yosha Bourgea

EDIA URTEAGA had an advantage when she found out she had diabetes. As a patient-relations coordinator at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Santa Rosa, she already knew factual information about the disease and understood some of its sources. Still, when test results from a regular checkup showed that her blood sugar levels were dangerously high, she refused at first to believe it.

"I became really scared," Urteaga says. "I just stopped eating. I was rejecting this, saying, 'Why me?' I knew about diabetes, but when it's your own body it's a different story."

Because Latinos like her suffer a greater incidence of diabetes than other ethnic groups, Urteaga will be taking part in a panel discussion on nutrition and diabetes strategies next Thursday as part of the seventh annual Latino Health Forum conference. She will talk about nutrition, medication, and exercise, but also about how important it is that health-care providers acknowledge the emotional impact of being diagnosed with a disease like diabetes.

"It's different for Latinos because of language barriers and cultural barriers," Urteaga says. "It all depends on what stage of acculturation a person is at. At some stages, you're basically isolated."

In years past, the conference--which is organized by the Sonoma County Academic Foundation for Excellence in Medicine and held at the Sonoma County Office of Education in Santa Rosa--has tackled topics such as the health of Latino farmworkers and the problem of youth violence. This year, the focus is on women's-health issues.

Conference coordinator Natalie Peck expects between 150 and 200 people--students, health-care workers, politicians, clergy members, social advocates, and others--to attend the daylong gathering. Workshops will touch on issues such as domestic violence, cultural attitudes toward women's sexuality, and the problem of finding access to health care.

Bill Hughes, executive director of the Southwest Community Health Center, says that a majority of the patients at his facility are Latino--and most of them are at or below the poverty level. A study released by the Sonoma County Health Partnership this year shows that 35.8 percent of Latinos in the county are uninsured--far more than the general population. Hughes says that the few patients who have insurance through their employers generally don't have enough.

"One of the things that people tend not to realize is that poor people are sicker than affluent people," Hughes says. "It's a combination of living conditions, diet, and frequently education. The people who are routinely the sickest are the people who don't have insurance."

While documented immigrants are eligible for Medi-Cal, many of them do not apply for it out of fear and uncertainty about its effect on immigration status. And undocumented immigrants, who have learned to be wary of the INS, often don't seek out health care at all--even when it is desperately needed.

Although there are Latinos in every economic bracket, it is no stereotype to say that they are disproportionately represented among the poor. At the county, state, and national levels, Latinos have the lowest per capita income of any ethnic group.

"These are the folks who are picking our crops, minding our children, cooking, cleaning," says Helen Rodriguez-Trias, co-director of the Pacific Institute for Women's Health and one of the keynote speakers at the conference. "They are very poorly paid, and we now have a false economy. Ultimately, the only way a society can thrive is by caring about all its members."

The other keynote speaker is America Bracho, executive director of Latino Health Access, who will address the challenges that Latinas face in reconciling their cultural traditions with the culture of the United States. "Sometimes [in traditional culture] you are taught that you don't own your body," Bracho says, "and then [in the United States] when you are 40, you're asked to touch your breast to look for cancer, but we're trained not to do that. We are not taught as a society to participate.

"We have to start by finding a way of feeling comfortable with our own bodies."

Although traditional gender roles are changing, it is still difficult for many Latinas to gain equal footing with the men in their lives. Yolanda (not her real name), who will be speaking at a conference workshop on domestic violence, says that she endured physical abuse at the hands of her husband for 10 years before she was able to turn him in to the police.

"I accepted it, I thought it was part of being a wife," she says. "I finally realized it didn't have to be that way."

IN SPEAKING to groups of Latino men, Yolanda has found that, like her, many of them came from violent homes and grew up thinking that physical abuse was acceptable. The cycle of violence isn't easy to break, she says, but talking about it is a beginning.

Of course, domestic violence affects women of every background, but for Latinas who may not be fluent in English or aware of available resources, it can be especially difficult to ask for help. Yolanda, who has been a Sonoma County resident for 20 years, was aided in her legal struggle by activist Marie De Santis of the Women's Justice Center, which offers bilingual assistance to women in need. "If it hadn't been for her, I wouldn't have made it through the court stuff," Yolanda says. "Her presence in the courtroom was amazing." De Santis will also speak at the conference workshop.

Empowering Latina girls and women is a community process, and the Latino Health Forum offers an opportunity for the community to come together in that spirit. "We need to teach our girls who they are as Latinas, not just at the physical level, [but also] at the political level," Bracho says. "If you don't know your power, you can't make change."

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From the October 21-27, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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