Celebrating gives people the energy to press on during difficult times, said Joseph Betancourt, MD, vice president and chief equity and inclusion officer, in his introduction to the Mass General Latino/a/x and Hispanic Heritage Month “Celebration of Unity, Heritage and Mass General Latino/a/x Front Line Staff” event. “Now more than ever, diversity, inclusion and tackling disparities and discrimination are imperative, and these celebrations are about recognizing resilience and celebrating the community.”

During one of the Oct. 9 events, health care professionals from hospitals and universities across the United States discussed the words people use for their identities, including umbrella terms such as “Hispanic” or “Latinx,” and specific words like “chicana” (for a Mexican-American woman). Some panelists advocated using “Latinx” or its Spanish equivalent “Latine” for groups, which could address the concern of using the masculine “Latino” as a general term and the need for a word that includes nonbinary people.

Continuing the theme of celebrating diverse backgrounds, the day featured music from pianist Leo Blanco, and guitarist and singer Gian Carlo Buscaglia, who played Latin American selections infused with familiar show tunes and other melodic styles. The day’s celebrations also included historical overviews, a cooking tutorial, and personal stories from Latinx workers on the frontlines at the hospital, and a video montage of Latinx employees at Mass General.

Nuestra Historia – Our History

Elena Olson, JD, executive director of Mass General’s Center for Diversity and Inclusion, spoke about the history of Latinx leaders at the hospital. Founded in 1992, the Center for Diversity and Inclusion was the first of its kind at an academic medical center, yet, Olson noted, it is striking how recent many of the Latinx milestones are. For example, the first Latino full professor who was promoted through the ranks at Mass General and Harvard Medical School—rather than coming from another institution in mid-career—was Gil Gonzalez, MD in 2005. Olson also said many of the people who were the first in a role at Mass General go on to be leaders in their fields, such as Marcela del Carmen, MD—the first Latina full professor who is now chief medical officer of the MGPO. The presentation concluded with a quote from Justice Sonia Sotomayor on the importance of being a role model and a first. “They have to be able to see that you are just like them, and you made it.”

Nourishing Communities

Evelyn Brito remembers the smell of fresh orange peel and warm bread in bodegas in her childhood. A first-generation Dominican-American film producer, she got the idea for the web-based documentary series Bodega Makeover when her daughter was three years old and loved snacking on fresh vegetables. Brito could not find fresh produce in her local bodegas—small neighborhood convenience stores—and while talking to the owners, she learned that many of these small, family-owned businesses had entrenched problems that made it hard to make improvements. For example, one could not afford to replace a broken refrigerator, forcing them to stop selling fresh produce.

During their presentation, Brito and Bodega Makeover host Jerry Diaz discussed the upcoming series, which works to reinvigorate local bodegas with a focus on health and community wellbeing, keeping prices affordable while offering nutritious options. Mass General is one of several area sponsors of the project.

Honoring the Frontlines

“I remember the look that she gave me—she was so scared, and I was so scared,” said Natalia Richey, CNM, of the Mass General Obstetrics and Gynecology Service, of a pregnant patient who had COVID-19.

Richey shared her experiences as part of the “Face to Face: A Dialogue with Nurses and Other Clinical Staff” presentation, one of three panel discussions featuring Latino/a/x employees who shared their stories of difficult and joyful moments during the first surge of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The common thing throughout was the smile we got from people when we went there and said, ‘¿Cómo estás?’” said Gladys Pachas, MD, of Mass General Psychiatry, who volunteered with the Spanish Language Care Group (SLCG), which was recently renamed as the Ernesto Gonzalez Service.

An estimated 1 in 3 patients with COVID-19 at Mass General were limited English proficient. Recognizing the limitations of relying solely on professionally trained interpreters during the pandemic, a group of more than 50 clinicians formed the SLCG to help staff care for patients and families. Panel members said they explained treatment options, provided a comforting presence and communicated with patients in Spanish during a difficult time. “Language is power,” explained Numa Perez, MD, Surgery resident.

Another panel focused on the experiences of Latinx Environmental Services and Materials Management employees whose jobs changed significantly during the response efforts as they worked to procure personal protective equipment (PPE) while balancing increased and new cleaning responsibilities and staffing challenges as colleagues took leave while battling COVID-19.

During the session, one viewer noted, “This discussion should be required viewing for all Mass General employees because the important work these employees do often goes unnoticed.”

One of the strengths of many Latin American cultures—extended families often living together in intergenerational households—became a liability because of coronavirus. This compounded the health effects of poverty, discrimination and language barriers that many in the community already face.

Carlos Giron, PA-C, in Radiology, recalled a patient who was worried about his 13-year-old son, who had been home alone for a week while both of his parents were hospitalized. Giron worked to find helpful resources to support the family during the trying time.

Despite the challenging time and struggles for staff, patients and community members, these discussions provided uplifting stories of resilience and hope, including that of Richey’s scared pregnant patient: Both mother and baby are now healthy.

Pork Pupusas & Cabbage Salad

Flor Chavez holding plates of food in front of a Celebrating Hispanic Heritage sign at a Mass General cafeteria.
Flor Chavez

Enjoy these recipes for pork pupusas and cabbage salad by Mass General's own Flor Chavez.

Recipes for pork pupusas and cabbage salad

Sessions were recorded and are available for viewing.