Aimée Thorne-Thomsen is a longtime community organizer and reproductive justice advocate whose work is focused on building power with and for women and girls, communities of color, immigrants, youth, and LGBTQ people. As founder of Guerrera Strategies, she helps corporate and nonprofit leaders move beyond the rhetoric of diversity, equity and inclusion, and aids them in developing culturally appropriate tools, resources and procedures that improve equitable access to care and reduce stigma for patients from underserved groups.
As our nation observes National Hispanic Heritage Month, I sat down with Thorne-Thomsen, who is of Puerto Rican descent and an esteemed member of the Reservoir Advocacy & Alliance Network, to discuss the state of Hispanic health care in the United States, as well as how to surmount barriers to equitable, culturally competent care.
Please Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
MN: Thank you so much for this conversation.
ATT: Thank you for reaching out and for centering this conversation on health. I feel like a lot of folks make assumptions about what is important to Latino communities, and they always lead with immigration. And while that’s an important issue, in many of our communities it's health and education that is most important to us. I'm glad to be able to have a health-focused conversation for Latino communities and begin to move the needle. I want to be able to make change wherever I can. Push it. Encourage it. Lift it up. I'm thankful for the chance to talk about some of the things going on in my community, and in other Latino communities.
MN: President Biden recently proclaimed the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted the Hispanic community with higher hospitalizations and deaths at its peak, was over. What have we learned from this moment in history, and where did we fall short?
ATT: My husband and I both have graduate-level educations, and we started out being very hesitant about the vaccine because of our understanding of how these processes usually work and the time it historically has taken to develop a vaccine. To me, the greatest failure of how we handled the pandemic was not communicating clearly enough with people to make them understand why it was better to be vaccinated than not.
That, to me, is a failure of public education driven by the underinvestment in public health. When you think about the discrimination and poverty Latino communities already face, these were only exacerbated during COVID. While public health materials were usually in Spanish, they weren’t made available in accessible Spanish so that people could understand what we were talking about.
In addition, there was little recognition for people who couldn't work from home and who couldn't take paid leave. We adopted a ridiculously narrow interpretation of what the public health conversation should look like in this country when we had an opportunity to talk about race, gender, labor, and safety in a broader sense.
MN: Xavier Becerra is the 25th Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and the first Latino to hold this office. Do you think his historic appointment brings more visibility to health issues specifically affecting the Hispanic community?
ATT: On the one hand, representation really freaking matters. The fact that it is a Latino man leading in this space, who has been deeply rooted in the community for a long time, is a great thing. Do I see that as having translated into real change for health issues for Latino communities? Probably not to the extent that I would like. I will say he has taken a very strong position on reproductive healthcare, vis-a-vis the Dobbs decision. That pleases me.
MN: What do you think is the biggest health-related misconception facing the Latino community? How do we fix it?
ATT: The level of implicit and explicit bias that Latino communities experience writ large in health care settings must be called out. And when I say writ large, I am talking about everyone who they might interact with in a healthcare facility – from the person that checks you in, to the person who takes your blood pressure, not just the person who shows up in a white coat.
My biological mother is a 14-year cancer survivor. She was born in Puerto Rico and came over to the states as a 10-year-old child. She speaks and writes English fluently. At one point when she was in the hospital, providers would walk in, read her name and immediately address someone else in the room instead of her. There is nothing in her chart that says she is not fluent in English or that she is somehow suffering from dementia or is incompetent. And yet, over and over, people would come in and talk to me or other family members. I'd be like, shoot, she's right there. She's awake. You can talk to her.
This is one example that illustrates the idea of cultural competency hasn’t been implemented well. People latched onto the concept because they were looking for a single bullet to explain and address bias. But I'd like to see a much deeper commitment to the idea of cultural humility, which requires that providers at every level learn about and honor the experiences of the people they serve.
MN: What does Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you, and what should it mean to the healthcare industry?
ATT: That's a great question and in some ways probably a more complicated question this year than it might have been in years past, in part because of the devastation caused by the recent hurricanes. People are homeless and suffering in other islands, but the attention is on Puerto Rico. And I am clear that as a Puerto Rican, I have visibility and access to tools, models, and resources that my Dominican family members don't have.
Our community is so large and has such a diverse history. Latinos from the Caribbean do not share the same history as Latinos from Central America. And yet we talk about Hispanic Heritage Month or Latino Heritage Month or Latinx Heritage Month, and it's supposed to help somehow encapsulate hundreds of millions of people. I wear my country, my island, on my chest everywhere. I am a proud Puerto Rican. Unlike others within our community, I don't have to fight for visibility. People can name famous Puerto Ricans. When was the last time we heard someone being lifted up from Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Bolivia?
And so, when I think of what should Latino Heritage Month mean for the medical providers, the industry, and healthcare? I would like you to think about Latino communities all year round. But if you're going to at least think about them during this time of year, I need you to be humble. I need you to show up with some humility and be willing to listen and learn from the community itself.
This interview is the second installment of a new series entitled, The Deep Dive, in which members of Reservoir’s Advocacy and Alliance Network (RAAN) share learnings and perspectives on the healthcare landscape.