Latinx/e Heritage Month: Know Your Past to Transform Our Future – Siempre Pa’Alente y Nucan Pa’tras

September 28, 2023

National Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month is celebrated from September 15th to October 15th to acknowledge and celebrate the many unique histories, cultures, and contributions of American citizens who came from Spain, Portugal, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. Unlike many cultural heritage months that coincide with a single calendar month, the mid-month bookends for Latinx/e Heritage Month were chosen to include a broad range of important dates. September 15th marks the day that Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua all mark their independences from Spain, while Mexico and Chile celebrate their independence from Spain on September 16th and 18th, respectively. Indigenous peoples are celebrated around the world on October 12th for the controversial and multi-named date marking Columbus’ arrival in the Americas and the start of the fusion of Spanish and Indigenous American cultures. Many Latin American countries call this day Día de las Razas, while others focus on Spanish heritage with the name El Día de la Hispanidad, and others still focus on the resistance of Indigenous peoples against Spanish colonization with the name Día de la Resistencia Indígena. The United States historically celebrated October 12th as the federal holiday Columbus Day before the holiday’s date was changed to the second Monday in October and its name was later changed to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

SDSU is a proudly Hispanic-serving Institution (HSI). This designation is reserved for universities with at least 25% of their full-time undergraduate student population who identify as Hispanic or Latino. The U.S. Hispanic population reached 62.1 million in 2020, accounting for approximately 19% of all Americans, and the state of California has the largest Latinx population in the country. Many students and faculty from across the School of Public Health are actively working on projects specific to local Latine populations including but not limited to:

  • Longtime Epidemiology and Biostatistics Lecturer, Alfonso Rodriguez-Lainz, who teaches classes focusing on Latine populations (e.g., the International Health Epidemiology Practicum PH 626 also known as Viaje Interinstitucional de Integracion, docente, asistencial y de investigacion or VIDAII) and vulnerable populations where Latine groups may be disproportionately represented (e.g., PH 700A on migrant health)
  • Joint Doctoral Program (JDP) students, Alana Lopez, Carrie Nacht, and Marina Katague, who coordinated a four-part lunchtime speaker series to foster an environment that better retains and supports students of color in public health and academia
  • Undergraduate student, Sebastian Montiel, whose work focuses on bridging the gaps between LGBTQ+ communities and access to culturally competent healthcare
  • Master of Public Health student concentrating in Epidemiology, Salma Iraqi, who is focusing her master’s manuscript on examining disaggregated Latine data to investigate disparities in adverse birth outcomes among foreign-born mothers from Latin America and the Caribbean
  • Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences (HPBS) Professors, Noe Crespo and Guadalupe Xochitl Ayala, who often focus on chronic diseases that disproportionately impact Latinx populations
  • Alumna, Alyssa Mireles, who was recognized as the California League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Young Woman of the Year for 2023
  • Master of Public Health student concentrating in Health Management and Policy (HMP), Dana Patterson, who works with promotoras on digital literacy skills
  • JDP students and Adams Family Scholarship recipients, Theresa Perez and Erica Hernandez, who are pursuing field research projects in Peru and Mexico
  • FUERTE Assistant Professors, Nicolas Galvez Lopez in Environmental Health and Benjamin Aceves in HPBS, who were recently awarded $400,000 in funding from the Imperial County Public Health Department for their collaborative project “Assessing Social & Environmental Health Impact Related to Lithium Extraction in Imperial County
  • Associate Professor in HMP, Melody Schiaffino, who is profiled below.

As a child, Melody Schiaffino immigrated to the United States from Mexico with her parents where she had to learn English quickly to navigate life in the United States. “Since I was young this was a lot easier for me in some ways,” she explained, “[but] in others, it was terrifying.” Interacting with the fragmented American healthcare system throughout her life, she became passionate about ensuring access to safe, high-quality, culturally and linguistically appropriate care for all people. Recognizing that this ought to be part of the minimum standard of care, Dr. Schiaffino pursued her MPH in epidemiology and PhD in Health Services Research. She now manages several projects that focus on healthcare delivery to vulnerable minoritized populations, especially those who have limited English proficiency (LEP), are foreign-born, or are older adults. Her research addresses these inequities with a focus on aging, cancer care delivery, geography, and technology as they require effective communication at their core. 

Melody K. Schiaffino
Dr. Melody K. Schiaffino

“One of the projects I’m most proud of is The Legacy Speakers Project,” Dr. Schiaffino explained. Funded by both the SDSU Student Success Fee (SSF) and Center for Health Equity, Education, and Research at the University of California, San Diego’s School of Medicine, this pilot project aims to understand and improve training for native and bilingual research staff to ensure culturally and linguistically appropriate care for themselves and the minoritized research participants they work with. Dr. Schiaffino hopes to develop an intervention through this project to support legacy speakers “improve how they navigate the research field [in] work[ing] with diverse and non-diverse study teams as well as ensuring the best experiences for study participants who are diverse, vulnerable, or LEP” with the overarching goal of increasing diversity in clinical trials. Schiaffino Lab member and SDSU alumna Kathy Vu will present the project’s preliminary findings at The International Conference on Communication in Healthcare (ICCH) 2023 in Puerto Rico this October. 

While these projects are ongoing in her lab, the bulk of Dr. Schiaffino’s current work is now through her co-appointment as the inaugural Associate Director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at the UCSD Moores Cancer Center. In this role, she works to deploy the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion’s goal of continuing strong collaborations and research with SDSU while simultaneously forging new partnerships with diverse scientists at UCSD. “Now working at a much more systemic level,” she explained, “I am doing even more work in addressing similar barriers.”

In reflecting on Latine Heritage Month, Dr. Schiaffino noted, “as a Latina immigrant, I am very proud to celebrate Hispanic/Latine Heritage Month because it coincides with very special holidays for many countries, from the Mexican Independence Day on September 16 to many other Latin and South American nations that proclaimed their freedom from oppression and a desire to live freely.”

Join us in celebrating at any of the numerous events at SDSU throughout the month!

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