From Yucuquimi to the United States: Translating Medicine through Intercultural Communication

by Dalila Vázquez Herrera

“They’re Mexican, so they speak Spanish.” These words appeared an article in The New York Times about a hospital official in New York who called a Mexican organization to help her understand some Mexican patients. The quote above is what the hospital official responded when the person at the Mexican organization asked her if she had asked what language the family spoke. The hospital official just assumed they spoke Spanish, but the family actually spoke Mixtec, one of the many indigenous languages spoken within the borders of the Mexican nation-state and across Central America. This situation is not surprising to me because I’ve experienced this linguistic and cultural disconnect on numerous occasions during the last eight years that I have been living in the United States. I grew up speaking Mixtec in a small rural town in Mexico and learned Spanish in school (but even there everyone else in the school spoke Mixtec). Anyway, for instance, many people now ask me why I’m majoring in Spanish if it’s my first language since I’m Mexican? Therefore, with this project I want to explore not only the implications of language and culture barriers in medicine and healthcare, but also present to people in the United States a less known community of immigrants.

This is my first experience with a research project, so I’m learning aspects of the research process that I did not know about previously. For instance, I didn’t think I would need IRB approval for this project since it didn’t involve a life science type of experimentation. But I quickly learned that since my project involves interviewing human subjects, confidentiality must be guaranteed, and consent forms must be obtained in all languages used in the research (English, Spanish, Mixtec; an additional consideration is how to obtain consent from study participants who are not literate). There are other issues that require careful consideration in order to ensure few risks to the participants. This of course took longer than I expected because I had to do multiple revisions and incorporate a number of changes suggested by the IRB.

4-21-16SIRE Presentations

Dalila (left) with her advisor Professor Karen Stolley (Spanish & Portuguese)

While waiting for the IRB approval necessary to move forward with the field research aspects of my project, most of my research has focused on gathering data from journals and books to lay the foundations of the subject that I wish to present; my work has focused primarily on ethnobotany and discussions of healthcare delivery to immigrant communities in the US. This phase of the project has included regular meetings with my advisor and discussing ideas and receiving advice from her about bibliography and organization of the project.  Finally, about a week ago, I received IRB exemption of my project so now I can move forward with the interviewing aspect of my research. This spring break I’m planning to travel to Mexico to carry out interviews and gather information about the Mixtec community.

My project is about intercultural relationships in medicine, specifically how they are reflected in different languages being used by physicians and their patients. My research focuses on a Mixtec-speaking community in Mexico, particularly on how members of that community seek medical services in both Mixtec and non-Mixtec areas. The first part of the analysis will be to to observe the communication between Mixtec local healers and their Mixtec patients (where both healer and patient share the same language). The second part of the analysis will be to observe the communication between Mixtec patients and their non-Mixtec physicians in their local town as well as in a nearby Spanish speaking city. All this data will be compared to the situation of Mixtec immigrants in the United States. My principle method for gathering data is by interviewing Mixtec local healers in Yucuquimi de Ocampo, Mexico and Spanish speaking doctors in Yucuquimi and Huajuapan de León – the district city to which Yucuquimi belongs and where people from Yucuquimi seek services not available in their small rural town. I’m excited to finally start working on this big part of my project now that I have secured the appropriate IRB authorization.

Semple, Kirk. “Immigrants Who Speak Indigenous Languages Encounter Isolation.” The New  York Times. 10 July 2014. Web.

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