Get to know La Comunidad, UCLA Health's new Latina/o, Latine/x affinity group

For Hispanic Heritage Month, La Comunidad discusses how community inspires hope.

When Jayme Moreno, a clinical nurse at UCLA Health, saw the 2021 Hispanic Heritage Month image chosen by the National Council of Hispanic Employment Program Managers (NCHEPM), she says it spoke to her in a profound way.

“It made me think back about past generations,” says Moreno, “my mom and my grandmother and everyone that has been in my life who has pushed me and my family forward.”

The NCHEPM membership selects an annual Hispanic Heritage Month theme to be used nationwide by government agencies, nonprofits and other organizations. This year, the theme is “esperanza” – in Spanish, “hope” – and the associated image depicts people making their way along a path toward a sunlit horizon.

Moreno is the chair of La Comunidad, UCLA Health’s new Latino/a, Latinx/Latine Affinity Group. With Hispanic Heritage Month upon us, members of the group are reflecting on the experiences that brought them together and the goals they aim to achieve within their organization.

“I grew up on a small border town with a single mom and my grandparents, and sometimes it's hard for me to believe that I'm here,” says Xavier E. Cagigas, PhD, associate director for the Hispanic Neuropsychiatric Center of Excellence at UCLA and co-director of the UCLA Cultural Neuropsychology Program. “I worked hard, but I never would have gotten here if not for all of the love and support that I have received from my family and wife.”

Esperanza is a term, Dr. Cagigas says, that bridges the past, the present and the future.

“Our Comunidad is the product of the hope that our family and ancestors projected into the future, and we now have the burden and privilege of being that same bridge forward, to give esperanza to others,” Dr. Cagigas says.

When more people share their experiences and voices, he says, more is possible. But historically, Latinos at UCLA Health have been siloed from one another and unable to articulate a collective voice, he adds.

“We're all doing wonderful things, but we don't know about each other,” he says. “Think about what we could do if we collaborated and celebrated together.”

Tracy Reyes Serrano, a Child Life Specialist at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital and member of La Comunidad, says she was one of two fluent Child Life Spanish speakers providing care for the unaccompanied migrant children at the pop-up shelter in Long Beach.

And during a community event with Spanish-speaking Dodgers players, “I found myself in a line of people saying, am I the only Spanish speaker here?” Reyes Serrano recalls. “That's not right. There has to be something done.”

Reyes Serrano says the experience made her reexamine the Latino representation within her own department.

“To be quite blunt, I needed to do something,” she says. Enter La Comunidad affinity group, “a perfect opportunity to really put action into these concerns.”

The goals of the group are to foster collaboration between its members and improve Latino representation at the organization from top to bottom, says Paola Nava-Jimenez, La Comunidad co-chair and program manager at UCLA Health Sound Body Sound Mind.

“Even though we know that a majority of the population in L.A. County is Hispanic or Latino, I don't see many Hispanic or Latino leaders,” she says. “I want to change that.”

At college, Nava-Jimenez says, she was able to share her experiences with other Latinos who understood the struggles, celebrations and complexities of their culture. Now she intends to lend her expertise and guidance to other Latinos at UCLA Health through La Comunidad.

“I want to empower people to use their own voice and not to be afraid to speak up for themselves,” she says.

Dr. Cagigas and Reyes Serrano say they’ve both experienced and witnessed racism and microaggressions at various times in their careers. For example, after certifying as a medical interpreter, Reyes Serrano remembers being scolded by a colleague while interpreting for a Spanish-speaking family.

“(They) took me aside and said, ‘I'd really appreciate it if you would talk to me before you do anything with my patients,’” recalls Reyes Serrano. “It sat funny with me at the time,” given she had been interpreting in a culturally competent way.

It’s common in Latino culture, she says, to be grateful simply to have a job, not to ask for more and not to cause trouble. However, “it's OK to say that we deserve more, we deserve to be treated fairly, we deserve to be treated equally,” she says.

The formation of La Comunidad marks “the first time that there is an officially sanctioned group for Latino staff and faculty at UCLA within the health system and within the School of Medicine,” Dr. Cagigas says.

Nearly a decade ago, he and a group of colleagues tried to create an affinity group called D-UCLA, which stood for “Doctores Unidos con Los Angeles,” or “Doctors United with Los Angeles.” However, the proposal was not given the official green light at the time despite having multidisciplinary buy-in, he says.

But times are changing. In the short time it’s existed, the anti-racist framework in place at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA through the Anti-racism Roadmap has been liberating and empowering for UCLA Health, Dr. Cagigas says.

“People now feel they can openly acknowledge what has always been there with a new awareness,” he says. “By openly acknowledging systemic racism, we can now openly try to be actively anti-racist.”

It’s important for individuals and the organization as a whole to leverage their privileges to help those less privileged, says Dr. Cagigas. He includes himself and the advantages that he’s had as a male and light-skinned Latino to highlight that no one is immune from actively acknowledging their own privilege and intentionally trying to leverage that privilege to serve those most impacted by systemic oppression.

“If more and more of us get together and dialogue to share lived experiences, hopefully we can begin to change the structures and the systems that we either actively or passively participate in,” he says. “I think a group like La Comunidad and other Health System affinity groups are a good way to keep all of us honest and re-center often marginalized voices, while keeping efforts for transformative change in plain view.”

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