In California's Central Valley, new farmers markets are increasing access to healthy foods. In Santa Ana, dozens of community members regularly get involved in civic opportunities to improve neighborhood conditions. And in California's Arvin-Lamont region, 300 residents pushed for the closure of a hazardous, polluting recycling plant.
What do they all have in common? They're all examples of Latino communities banding together to improve and create opportunities for better health, according to research presented during a Tuesday session on "Latino-Effective Policies: When Will We Be Included?"
"We still have a big fight, it's not a clear path," said presenter George Flores, program manager at the California Endowment, home to the Health Happens Here campaign and its Latino-focused sister campaign, La Salud Empieza Aqui. "But we each have a role."
Flores noted that Latino children often grow up facing "tremendous adversity," which then puts them at risk for facing "tremendous health adversity too." In a scan across Latino communities to explore what works and what doesn't, researchers found that when it comes to health, a person's physical location and the social factors that shape that environment really do matter.
"Social and place and environmental inequities lead to health inequities," he said.
Luckily, smart policy can shape these factors to favor better health, Flores said, and that's exactly what's happening in many Latino communities across the nation. Some examples: healthier food menus in mercados (markets), healthier food choices in bodegas (corner stores), and the creation of local produce markets and urban gardens.
"A community initiative can really make these kinds of changes," said Flores, who added that when policymakers say prevention doesn't work, the answer needs to be: "BALONEY!" It does work!"
Across the country in Massachusetts, Ester Shapiro, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, said that as the nation waits for real immigration reform, she and her colleagues are looking for ways to act locally, noting that the "violence of deportation has increased under the Obama administration."
"What can all of us do to protect the health of people living in the shadows of our communities," she asked attendees.
She said that immigration raids in New Bedford, Mass., were a big moment for "all of us" to start thinking about points of contact for policy change, especially policies that prevent the separation of family members. Shapiro told attendees that about half of Latinos say someone in their families or social networks are afraid of being deported. The experience means many Latino families live in constant fear, and Latino children and teens often have to take on unique burdens to care for their families.
To reach such Latino families with critical support services, you have to go to where they feel safe, Shapiro said.
"Everyone has to have a hand in policy change," she said.
During the Q&A discussion at the end of the session, Flores noted that the Latino experience "really is the spirit of America."
"We're the embodiment of that spirit," he said. "Our right to achieve is real and our drive to achieve is real."
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