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On "The Bittersweet American Dream"

On "The Bittersweet American Dream"

Picture of Pedro Frisneda

When I was selected to be part of The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship program back in June 2010, I had three story ideas I wanted to develop for my fellowship projects. They involved three major health problems affecting the Latino community in the United States: health disparities of Latino women, diabetes and obesity among Mexican immigrants and Latinos affected by HIV/AIDS.

After I attended the week-long program of workshops, brainstorming sessions and discussions with my Senior Fellow and editors in Los Angeles, we reached the conclusion that I should focus my entire attention on just one proposal, because all three are very complex and broad topics.

I'm very happy that I chose to write about diabetes and how this disease is affecting the Mexican-immigrant community in New York City. Type 2 diabetes represents a major health challenge and threat for this group, in which both new cases of the disease an the risk of associated complications are greater than in other communities.

Health authorities and many doctors in the United States already classified diabetes as an "epidemic" and Latinos have two times higher risk of developing this disease than people of any other race. Diabetes ranks first among health problems affecting Hispanics in this country. According to the American Diabetes Association, 2 million Hispanics have type 2 diabetes (10.2% of all U.S. Latinos). The Mexican community is at highest risk, representing 24% of all cases and the worst part is that half of them do not know they are ill. For this reason, I thought it was of great significance to inform Mexican immigrants about this illness, especially in New York City, where they represent one of the faster-growing communities of new immigrants.

In addition to being a populations seriously affected by diabetes, Mexican immigrants face many challenges in accessing health care, preventions programs, services and treatment. A large number of them do not have health insurance and face linguistic and cultural obstacles, as well as immigration and socio-economic problems. While doing research for this series, I learned that one of the biggest challenges for this community is the lack of information on their own language (Spanish) about diabetes, its symptoms, treatment and, most importantly, how to prevent it.

This is why my editors at EL DIARIO and I felt that with my three-part series on diabetes, titled "Agridulce Sueño Americano" ("The Bittersweet American Dream"), we could accomplish the objective not only to inform but also to educate this community about this important topic. With more education, they can make smart choices in their eating habits and lifestyles in order to live a healthier and happier life.

In order to complete this series, I conducted many interviews with doctors and experts on diabetes and obesity, and collected a great amount of data and statistics from different studies. However, I think the most important part of my series was the human testimonies, both in print and video, of people afflicted with this disease. With these stories, we gave a human face to the problem and presented it in an easier way for our readers to understand the factors that contribute to this chronic disease, including behavioral elements like increased fat consumption, decreased physical activity and obesity.

We worked with the Mexican consulate, community organizations, community clinics and hospitals in order to find families and people from the community affected by this disease, like Gerardo Cuapio, who found out on the verge of death in a hospital emergency room that he has type 2 diabetes when he was only 34 years old. We hope that this case serves as a clear example for others in the community of what could happen if they keep eating fast food and maintain the sedentary and unhealthy lifestyles they adoped when they immigrated and assimilated to the United States.

Many Hispanics in the United States, like Cuapio, are young, hard-working individuals who came to this country searching for a better life for their families. If they become incapacitated by diabetes, their levels of productivity and their futures will be compromised. It is tragic to see Latinos at 40 years old going blind and suffering amputations with children to support, or people with heart disease at age 32.

With this series, I also learned that the level of knowledge and empowerment in patients has a great impact on the burden associated with diabetes. Unfortunately, many Mexicans living in New York do not take good care of their health because they are working multiple jobs and don't have enough time for regular exercise or physical activity. On the other hand, due to their poverty levels, many Mexicans have limited access to affordable fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods; for that reason, they frequent fast food and cheap restaurants, which contributes to high levels of obesity.

One of my biggest challenges in completing this series was the lack of willingness from many people in the community, who were afraid to talk and open their homes to us. Many of them are undocumented immigrants who are afraid to talk about their lives and prefer to remain anonymous. Others who talked to us decided at the last minute that they did not want us to use their interviews or videos for our series.

We hope this series and the human stories presented in it will help to educate and create consciousness among Latino immigrants who are adopting a new lifestyle and diet that can contribute to the development of diabetes. This is very important for their future, the future of their families and the future of this country as a whole, since Latinos are the largest and fastest-growing community in this country.

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