The Maya women sit patiently in the lobby of Clinica Oscar Romero, playing with their children and speaking in their native dialects of Kanjobal and Quiche.
Idalia Xuncax knows all of the women. She is their guide, translator and advocate in a healthcare world so foreign from their villages in Guatemala, where many relied on herbal medicines and faith healers.
For eight years, Xuncax—who is also Maya—has reached out to other Mayas and gained the trust of a community that has generally been reluctant to seek Western medical treatment. Largely because of Xuncax’s work, the number of Maya patients at the Los Angeles clinic has grown from just a few eight years ago to about 700 today. Many have diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
But despite the gains, Xuncax and the clinic on Alvarado Street face daunting obstacles, including a shortage of interpreters and cultural differences that deter Mayas from seeking care, which can affect their health. Xuncax struggles constantly to get patients to show up for appointments and to take their medicine. She has to convince them that prenatal care won’t harm the fetus and that unprotected sex can lead to HIV.
“It’s not that they don’t want to be helped or be healthy,” Xuncax said. “Mostly, it’s cultural, that we don’t see doctors where we are from. We don’t have the flexibility of having a hospital or a clinic nearby.”
“You really need to understand the rest of the medical care world that these folks live in, of which standard Western medicine is only one facet,” [David Hayes-Bautista, director UCLA’s Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture,] said.
Like many immigrants, some Mayas are reluctant to seek medical care for fear of being deported or because they do not have insurance and don’t know that they can receive free services at Clinica Romero. The clinic receives private donations, as well as Los Angeles County, state and federal funds.
Clinic staff, including Alba Escobar, who heads the women and children program, met with Maya leaders to gain their support. And the clinic received a federal grant to do a healthcare study about Mayas living in Los Angeles.
With another grant, the clinic started treating Maya patients. A Kanjobal speaker was put at the front desk, easily accessible to patients. But many patients still went directly to Xuncax’s office, often with concerns that had nothing to do with healthcare.
On a recent night, a woman asked if she could fill out her application for WIC, a federally funded program for women, infants and children.