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For many women per­sonal health and well­ness can take a back seat to the many demands— professional and per­sonal—on their time and energy. For Latina women especially, cultural traditions that emphasize a woman’s role in managing the fam­ily’s needs and putting the family’s well-being first can mean that their own health needs go unmet.

As president and CEO of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health, the nation’s largest organization of health and human service providers to Hispanics, Jane L. Delgado, PhD, MS, is passionate about helping Latina women prioritize their health. In The Latina Guide to Health: Consejos and Caring Answers (HarperCollins; 2010; $15.95), Dr. Delgado offers Latinas empowering information and insight about critical women’s health topics in an accessible and culturally relevant manner. While acknowledging the barriers to health that Latina women can face, Dr. Delgado emphasizes the value of becoming informed about health and the healthcare system.

Dr. Delgado urges Latinas, who as the key health-decision makers in families have traditionally relied on information and remedies passed down through generations, to now commit to also incorporating “the best of science and technology when determining the right health decisions for our own well-being.” In her comprehensive coverage of key women’s health issues and helpful resource listings, Dr. Delgado provides a valuable tool to help Latina women take control of their health.

The Latina Guide to Health

Dr. Delgado says that the pressures and stressors that keep Latina women from accessing healthcare are similar to those that women face generally as they strive for work/life balance. And yet, she says, “Latinas are different in subtle ways that have a huge impact on our lives.” Specifically, “the stress we experience in our close families, along with our dependence on family, turns one of our greatest strengths into our weakness.” Here, in an excerpt from The Latina Guide to Health, Dr. Delgado describes the way prioritizing the needs of the family can prevent Latina women from getting the care they need.

Familia (Family)

While most cultures cherish the idea of family, for us familia means so much more. Decades of research support our personal experiences with familia. Compared with non-Hispanic women, we are more group oriented, more community oriented, and more “other” oriented in general. The concept of “me first” is not only unappealing but also a sign of being rude and malcriada (badly raised).

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Does this mean that we are one big happy family? Of course not. Latinas, like other women, struggle with their family members. Some want more autonomy, while others want less. There is no one-size-fits-all lifestyle. Yet we try to come to terms with what our family means to us and the impact they have had on our lives.

The Hispanic culture imposes an enormous sense of the need to have family connectedness, even when the relatives are physically far away, relationships have been far from ideal, or there is emotional distance. And when we do not have the family we want, we create new relationships to give that sense of belonging. Our concept of familia is all-encompassing, as it reaches beyond blood relatives to include people who are part of our emotional community. It is a unique way of connecting with others and of nurturing that strong sense of family in our culture.

When we get together, we ask each other about our families, friends, and relationships as we try to see the linkages that may exist. For Latinas this sense of belonging to a group is important. Our role models are not those Latinas who are solitary and independent but rather women who are connected to others. We like to be—and, for many of us, need to be—part of a family. This is a good thing in many ways. People who are connected to others tend to live longer and healthier lives; they are also less likely to suffer from depression. These are the good consequences of the Latina concept of familia—but there are also drawbacks.

What does not help us is the idea that our families are the only people we can trust and depend on. There is a common belief that we should neither discuss our problems outside our close circle nor seek help beyond it. This kind of focus on family goes beyond caring to becoming controlling. It can even entrap us in situations that are unbearable. It is at this point that familia generates an emotional chokehold on any action we would take to meet our own needs as individuals.

Doing things for ourselves becomes difficult because of how we set up our priorities. There is much that we convince ourselves we have to do for others. We live as if each day had more than 24 hours. First, we take care of our family members and friends, then we meet our job commitments, then we keep our house in order, and, finally, we keep our clothes and cosas (things) in order. By the end of the day, there is only enough time to put on our pajamas, go to bed, and—if we’re lucky—have enough time to get a good night’s sleep. Then we start the same cycle all over again the next day. Familias may be wonderful, but they can also be exhausting. The question is, How can we balance the love of familia with what we can reasonably do? Understanding the need for that balance is an important first step toward our own health. To take care of ourselves, we need time, which we often need to claim from others in our lives.

Since those around you benefit from all you do, it is also in their best interest that you stay healthy, refreshed, and happy.

To learn more about Latina health issues and helpful resource recommendations, see ourQ&A with Dr. Delgado.

Excerpted from The Latina Guide to Health: Consejos and Caring Answers by Jane L. Delgado. Copyright © 2010 by Jane Delgado. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow Paperbacks, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.