Honoring the Contributions of NYSNA’s Latina Nurses - Through the Eyes of Our Members

NYSNA Members (L to R) Kelley Cabrera, RN, Rosangel Pichardo, RN, Roxanna Garcia, RN, Victoria Diaz, RN.

From Sept. 15 through Oct. 15, NYSNA is lifting the accomplishments of its Latino members as part of National Hispanic Heritage Month.

First established in 1968, Hispanic Heritage Month commemorates the history and contributions of people whose families come from Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean. Today, more than 62 million Latinos live in the United States, approaching 19 percent of the nation’s total population. According to the latest census, Latinos account for more than half the country’s population growth.

The contributions of Latino nurses are of even greater importance during the COVID-19 pandemic, when a disproportionate number of Latinos have been impacted by the virus. However, according to the Center for Disease Control, 4 percent of all registered U.S. nurses identify as Latino.

In the next two issues, NYSNA will amplify the insights of several Hispanic members. This month, we’ll feature Kelley Cabrera, RN, of the Jacobi Medical Center, Victoria Diaz, RN of St. Catherine of Siena Hospital, and Rosangel Pichardo, RN, of the Albany Medical Center.

Kelley Cabrera, RN, Jacobi Medical Center – Ecuador

After a childhood full of translating for my family in hospitals and clinics, I knew I wanted to be a nurse. It was crazy how few nurses looked or spoke like me. By age 16, I knew I wanted to care for patients like my parents. As a fluent Spanish speaker, I could help my patients navigate the complicated avenues of our broken healthcare system.

As an ER nurse, I know how vital it is to understand my patients and for them to understand me. I’ve seen firsthand how language barriers only add more chaos and distress in the most emergent situations.

What has been made abundantly clear during this pandemic is that our most marginalized and vulnerable communities would pay the highest price. During the first wave of COVID, I immediately thought of workers like my parents. They immigrated here from Ecuador in search of a better life. My mother is a housekeeper, and my father is a school bus driver. They were out of work for months and were faced with the reality of returning before things were truly safe. Their work, like that of so many immigrants, was deemed “essential” though not always treated as such.

The unfortunate truth is that Latino death rates due to COVID are 2.3 times higher than whites in N.Y. Many come from immigrant families like mine. Health disparities are rampant due to lack of funding for our healthcare systems, lack of health insurance and even fear of seeking any care at all. I hope that in my lifetime there will be more nurses like me, who come from immigrant families and who truly understand the dynamics of these disparities. I hope we can dismantle this system and create one that provides safe and quality healthcare for all.

Rosangel Pichardo, RN, Albany Medical Center – Dominican Republic

I came to Washington Heights as a teenager. I met so many wonderful teachers and mentors in high school who took the time to teach me English after school. I will forever be grateful to the teachers at George Washington High School. I am the first one in my family to get a college degree.

I am very proud of my heritage, especially when it comes to my profession. I find it helpful to connect with patients on a personal level because of our shared cultural similarities. I can honestly say I am very proud of being a Hispanic frontline worker who has persevered through these unprecedented and challenging times. In my 20 years of experience, I have never experienced anything like this, but I wouldn’t change my profession for the world.

Victoria Diaz, RN, St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center – Puerto Rico

I was born and raised in Chicago. My father came from Puerto Rico when he was 21 years old.

When my two children were toddlers, ages two and four, we made the decision to move to Puerto Rico. I wanted them to know Puerto Rico as only someone raised there can. That meant having Spanish as their first language. We lived there and recognized our bond with the island.

We learned a lot there: some of the living conditions were hard compared to Chicago, but our tie to fellow puertorriquenos was very strong. Puerto Rico is treated like a second-class citizen by the United States. That must change. It was very important that our children knew that firsthand.

I remember our first Christmas there: It would start with carolling (parrandas) from house-to-house and each night at a different home the food that would be served was arroz con gandules, pernil, pasteles, arroz con dulce, flan and tembleque. This was the traditional food served on the holiday until Tres Reyes (Three Kings Day). It was more than a holiday menu: it was a tradition of our people. What I bring away from my culture the most is the sense of family and pride associated with being Puerto Rican.

Roxanna Garcia, RN, Montefiore Medical Center – Honduras

The question that I get asked the most is, “Where are you from?” As a child when I first arrived in the United States, all through my schooling years and even now as an adult, this question was never far away. I usually settle by responding, “I’m from Honduras,” but inevitably the question is followed by, “Where is that?” Depending on how much time I have and how interested in knowing the person asking is to me will determine how much I want to elaborate on that question. My truth is, I am American. I am Honduran. I am Afro-Caribbean. I am Hispanic — this is my inheritance; this is my heritage. Moving to the United States from Honduras when I was four years old, I had no idea all these aspects of how I am would give me the strength to succeed.

My summers, after the school year concluded, were spent on my grandparents’ farm in Honduras. It’s those summers spent helping on the farm, some days without all the comforts and distractions I had back in New York, that helped mold my nuanced and multifaceted perspective on life.

Hispanic heritage is our shared language, our foods, our cultures, our resilience and perseverance. I realized when I was older that my unique experience of growing up with many cultures, the American, Latino, Caribbean and Indigenous — these are many roots of my Hispanic heritage.

Despite being part of one of the fastest growing demographics in the country and in New York state, in my profession as a Registered Nurse I am still in the minority. I see my bilingual, bicultural background as assets in my career. I want our leaders, professional and political, to see us, to value us as more than just a homogenous demographic. I would hope that more Hispanics would see themselves as vital to the success of our society and not as outsiders, that we would hold up and embrace our heritage as the inheritance that’s given us the tools to succeed.

When I get asked where I’m from, the immediate response is “I am American, I am Honduran, I am Afro-Caribbean. I am Hispanic and I am proud.”

National Hispanic Heritage Month runs from September 15 to October 15. Additional statements by Latina nurses will be included in October’s New York Nurse.

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