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Conference links deteriorating health
of Latinos to poverty
(April 26, 1999)

One of the ironies about Latino immigrants in New England is that, as a group, they tend to be healthier on their arrival to this country than they are after a few years of life in the United States.

"The paradox is that the more acculturated we become, our health tends to get worse," observes Ana Lanza, an assistant professor in Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. "It's time that we look at the qualities of our Latino culture and how it impacts our health."

Lanza, who specializes in how cultural and socioeconomic processes affect the well being of Latinos, was among a group of Latino academics and civic leaders who spoke last week at a conference on poverty and health among Latinos in the Northeast.

The conference provided a snapshot of the health status of New England's fastest growing immigrant group. Latinos now represent 11 percent of the U.S. population, or about 30 million, of which some three percent reside in New England.

Unfortunately there is a prevailing ignorance about the ethnic mix of Latinos - a multiracial ethnic group united by a common language of origin, said Gregory Acevedo, an instructor in Puerto Rican studies at the School of Social Work. He noted that demographic factors such as per capita income, education levels, and proficiency in English vary widely among Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans - the three largest Latino populations in the country - and other population groups, including those from Central and South America.

"There is a need to look at the socio-economic conditions of each group separately," Acevedo said. "There still is a tendency to collect data about Hispanics as one group, but our differences vary to such a degree that real health issues are masked when data is aggregated."

"The paradox is that the more acculturated we become, our health tends to get worse."

Ana Lanza
Assistant Professor
Columbia University,
School of Public Health

Emphasizing that health issues are related to ancestry, Bruce Kennedy, a sociologist at Harvard University's School of Public Health, noted that cultural models - such as the type of food people eat and social supports such as strong family ties - have historically been good for Latino health.

"What happens is that when many immigrants come to this country they start to eat at McDonalds," said Kennedy, whose research focuses primarily on the relationship between income inequality and health. "By the time the second generation comes along, the cultural tie is weakened. Culture can protect you so far, before greater forces operating on you get to you."

The deteriorating health status of Latino groups is directly tied to nutrition issues, maintained Anir Gonzales who works with low-income families in Hartford as part of the Family Nutrition Program, a joint partnership between the city's Hispanic Health Council and UConn. She cited a recent survey of the dietary quality of 248 families served by the nutrition program that showed 29 percent of the families could not afford to provide balanced meals to their children, another 17 percent of the families had "persistently hungry children," while one in five of the children in the program were obese.

"Poor nutrition has everything to do with poverty," Gonzales stressed. "Many health problems we encounter are being driven by income inequality."

Despite such disturbing statistics, Nicolas Carballeira, director of the Latino Health Institute in Boston, described community-based Latino health programs in Massachusetts that are helping to address nutrition and medical needs of what he called "the poorest Latino community in the nation."

"We have to start mobilizing in different ways," said Angelo Falcon of the New York-based Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. "Our people are finally getting the word that we must mobilize and commence to be part of the health-care system in order to turn things around."

The conference was hosted by the Institute for Puerto Rican and Latino Studies, the Department of Nutritional Sciences and the School of Social Work as part of Latino Awareness Month.

David Bauman