Overcoming Our Environment

Many times I wonder why the Latino community has such a large and disproportionate percentage of dropouts, teen pregnancy, low-income families, and type 2 diabetes and heart disease patients.

Frederick Jackson Turner argues that one’s environment defines who one is in terms of behavior and the decisions one makes. As in many other communities, this statement holds validity in the Latino community.

Many Latino students perform poorly in school because their environment, both in school and at home either does not support or does not place value on educational advancement. Education has been undervalued among Latinos for many years as a result of the “inequitable conditions, inadequate resources, and unjust education they received in the city’s public schools” less than a century ago. Prior to the Chicano Movement in 1960, Mexican-American students were discriminated in schools for speaking Spanish, eating traditional Mexican food, and looking “Mexican.” It’s no wonder this group feels resentment towards the education system. And this resentment is still seen decades later in newer generations. Furthermore, academic success is greatly dependent on a parent’s contribution to their child’s education. Because the “socioeconomic status of Latinos is the lowest of the major racial and ethnic groups in the population,” Latino parents often don’t have the money needed to ensure their children have plentiful resources, such as computers, that contribute to academic success.

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Many Latino kids also eat and drink unhealthily because it is an acceptable, common thing within their families or in their community. By age two, for example, about 74 percent of Latinos have had a sugar sweetened beverage. Why is this clearly flawed custom seen as acceptable within Latino communities? Perhaps, it is a result of industry’s biased marketing of unhealthy products towards communities of color. A recent study shows that 84.2 percent of advertisements on Spanish-language television targeted to children are of unhealthy foods and beverages, compared to 72.5 percent of advertisements on English-language television. On the other hand, only 15.2 percent of advertisements on Spanish-language television targeted to children are of healthy food products, compared to a higher 26.6 percent of advertisements on English-language television. Latino kids are more exposed to fast foods and unhealthy drinks every day– it’s no wonder they view them as acceptable.

This is something that people may notice, but many either don’t know what to do, or they choose to do nothing about it. The people that choose to do nothing about it often feel as if other people’s health is not their responsibility. However, it is every Californian’s responsibility to ensure that we all have the opportunity to live healthy lives.  I joined the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California hoping to gain insight as to how I can make a contribution to improve the health of my community.

After being with LCHC for just a few weeks, I have learned so much and have grown inspired by the dedication of the people I work with. There are various legislative measures that can be taken to improve the overall well being of Latinos, and certainly people are taking action to demand change. It is inspiring to see that those legislative measures are strongly being advocated for in our state Capitol by multiple organizations, including LCHC. It makes sense that so many people are involved in supporting Latino health in California since our state is home to the largest Latino population (14.4 million in 2011). Because Latinos represent such a large proportion of the population and of California’s labor force, and make such a large contribution to California’s economy, their health should be just as important as anyone else’s. As our executive director Xavier likes to say, it is our responsibility to ensure that someone’s zip code or skin color will not determine the number of years they live.

One of the pieces of legislation that LCHC was actively supporting in an effort to further our mission was SB 1000 (Monning), also known as the sugar sweetened beverage safety warning label act. I arrived at the organization right as the bill hit the Senate floor and I witnessed LCHC staff collaborating with each other and other supporters of the bill to advance Californians’ health. Their motivation and dedication to guarantee health equity among all Californians is what enabled them to get the bill passed off the Senate floor.

While the bill did not make it out of the Assembly Health Committee, LCHC made a huge contribution to getting the bill that far, and more importantly, raised awareness of the negative impacts of unhealthy foods and drinks on Latinos across the state. We will continue working to educate people throughout the state of California on the health impacts of junk foods as well as build their capacity to effectively advocate at the local and state level. I will particularly focus on educating people about liquid sugar in sugary drinks, which directly contributes to many of the most prevalent and preventable diseases impacting Latinos and other communities of color, such as African Americans and Native Americans.  

I look forward to the work I will be doing this summer with LCHC. I encourage others to seek opportunities to get involved in advocating for communities of color so that people’s environments stop defining the quality and length of their lives.