Latino

Personal Memories During National Hispanic Heritage Month

The author and his family.

The author and his family.

By Elias Rodriguez

America is presently engaged in National Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from September 15 to October 15. Latino cultural pride is a diverse, multifaceted and nonpartisan experience. This national period of reflection and events began in 1968 under President Lyndon B. Johnson and was broadened by President Ronald Reagan in 1988.

To remember and honor my Latino ancestors during this festive period, I’m sharing a family photo that captures the affection, energy and delight of family life in my distinct Puerto Rican clan.

My father and mother migrated to Nueva York from Santurce and Canovanas, Puerto Rico in the 1950s. They met at church on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and the rest is history. In this photograph, taken in NYC, circa 1970s, the restless niño on my grandfather’s lap is me. Anchoring the family portrait is my beloved mother and maternal grandparents surrounded by my two sisters, four brothers, one aunt and an infant cousin. True to form, dad was absent during the photo shoot and at work after which he probably brought home from the local bodega: groceries, treats and, on one memorable occasion, a live rooster. The latter did not last long in a Manhattan apartment building and was promptly converted into a delicious stew.

A few short years after this photo, I experienced my first visit to Puerto Rico. Treasured memories of my abuelo and abuela include hearty meals of rice, beans, pork and freshly picked vegetables from our ancestral home; the luscious taste of leche fresca straight from cows milked early in the day; and the absolute recognition that the only way to address my grandparents was in a low, respectful tone, and in Spanish, their sole language.

Fortunately, my forbearers also left behind the legacy of a healthy respect for the Earth, an admiration for nature, and a commitment to responsible stewardship. Their enduring message is that every natural resource is a divine blessing and should be managed with wisdom, generosity and cooperatively. My abuelitos taught my family to respect the planet because it will outlast us, never litter because this is where we live, never be wasteful because every resource is cherished, and always be grateful for our days are few before we too are a memory.

About the Author: Elias serves as EPA Region 2’s bilingual public information officer. Prior to joining EPA, the proud Nuyorican worked at Time Inc. conducting research for TIME, LIFE, FORTUNE and PEOPLE magazines. He is a graduate of Hunter College, Baruch College and the Theological Institute of the Assembly of Christian Churches in NYC.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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The Latino Asthma Conundrum

By Elias Rodriguez

Franklin D. Roosevelt East River Drive

Franklin D. Roosevelt East River Drive

It was a hazy and hot day as I sat in my grade school New York City classroom. Suddenly, everyone’s attention was drawn to my classmate’s wheezing and labored breathing. Àngel was one of the biggest kids in our class, but he was clearly in distress and the memory of his pain is vivid. I now understand that my friend was having an asthma attack. Thankfully, our teacher knew precisely what to do and she had his inhaler inside her desk and ready.

Our Manhattan public school was located adjacent to a major highway known as the FDR Drive, which snakes up Manhattan’s eastside near the Williamsburg Bridge. The combination of high population density, cars, trucks and industrial activity was a recipe for dismal  air quality.

Àngel and many of my inner-city cohort shared a Puerto Rican ancestry. To this day, I remain puzzled by the disproportionately high asthma rate among Latinos. Latinos are 30 percent more likely to go to the hospital for asthma, as compared to non-Hispanic Whites. For reasons that are not fully understood, Puerto Ricans have double the asthma rate as compared to the overall Latino population.

While asthma rates have increased in the general population over the past two decades- what accounts for the alarming disparities? Are the reasons economic? Do groups in the lower income strata demonstrate more adverse health effects as a result of limited resources and less access to quality medical care?  Is the reason pegged to location? Does the propensity of certain groups to seek jobs in metropolitan areas lead to higher incidence in geographic clusters? Could culture be a culprit? Spanish was the first language of my parents and there are links between limited-English proficiency and barriers to quality care. We’d love to hear your theories. Solving this socio-economic-medical mystery is imperative for all of us since it is estimated that medical expenses associated with asthma cost a staggering $50 billion every year.

The explanation for these asthma rates among demographic groups is complex and multidisciplinary. The good news is that we have the power to take proactive steps. May is Asthma Awareness Month and it’s a great opportunity to remind people that having an Asthma Action Plan is one of the key tips EPA offers to people who live with asthma. EPA also encourages people to check local air quality at Air Now. The site uses a color-coded system to display whether pollutants exceed air quality standards and indicates the air’s impact on different populations. Give it a try at airnow.gov. Grab a tool. Get a plan and Adelante.

About the Author: Elias serves as EPA Region 2’s bilingual public information officer. Prior to joining EPA, the proud Nuyorican worked at Time Inc. conducting research for TIME, LIFE, FORTUNE and PEOPLE magazines. He is a graduate of Hunter College, Baruch College and the Theological Institute of the Assembly of Christian Churches in NYC.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Celebrating Diversity

By Elias Rodriguez

February is National African American History Month and I’ve been reflecting on my distinctly mixed heritage as a Nuyorican. Before relocating to New York City, my immediate forbearers were both born on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico or Borinquen, as the natives originally referred to it. Although born in the Big Apple, it wasn’t until I lived in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico that I discovered the wide diversity of colors, shapes, shades and hair texture of my extended family and related cousins. From ebony to ivory from brown-eyed to green-eyed, the genetic mixture of my family was both wondrous and intriguing to behold. You see, Puerto Ricans benefit from un Sancocho (a stew) of African, Spanish and Taíno bloodlines. When the Spanish conquistadores arrived they encountered the island’s friendly Taínos who spoke Arawakan, the most commonly known native tongue of all South American and Caribbean natives at that time. As generations passed, the peoples mixed and a prodigious progeny was birthed.

My aunts, uncles and grandparents were light skinned, dark skinned and somewhere in between. They were equally beloved and I always asked for their Bendición (blessing). I proudly derive a crucial part of my identity from this generic diversity and rich tradition. My second language is Spanish and I thoroughly enjoy listening to Salsa music with its unmistakable African beat. The nexus between island natives and Africans is historically significant. Who could have looked at the great late Roberto Clemente and not assumed he was black? The famous fort San Felipe del Morro was built with slave labor. Juan Garrido, who made landfall in 1508, is believed to be the first person of African descent to voluntarily arrive on the island when he arrived with Juan Ponce de Leon. The Espiritismo practiced by my maternal grandmother was surely influenced by traditions from across the Atlantic. One look at my childhood photographs and I can surmise that my mother’s taste for dressing me in psychedelic clothes did not come from the Plymouth Rock pilgrims.

The threads of African culture within my own heritage are enriching and enhance my awareness of cultural differences in my work as a federal representative. I teach my children to appreciate this multiculturalism. After all, the U.S. Census Bureau instructs us that “People who identify their origin as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish may be of any race.” As a native New Yorker, I celebrate the melting pot that gives our nation its strength and resiliency.

About the Author: Elias serves as EPA Region 2’s bilingual public information officer. Prior to joining EPA, the proud Nuyorican worked at Time Inc. conducting research for TIME, LIFE, FORTUNE and PEOPLE magazines. He is a graduate of Hunter College, Baruch College and the Theological Institute of the Assembly of Christian Churches in NYC.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.