America Bracho was living the immigrant dream for years. The Venezuelan native was the director of AIDS programming for Latino families in Detroit, toiling alongside community health workers and youth in their mission to create dialogue and awareness about sexually transmitted diseases and promote aid and prevention. And then she got a call from an agency in Orange County.
"I have to confess: I was hesitant to think OC was the place where I wanted to be," she says. "I thought OC was healthy and wealthy, so I didn't want to bring my focus and energy to a place where there was no need for my help."
But the person on the other line persisted, and Bracho moved to Orange County in 1991. Starting with a radio show on which she gave medical advice to the area's many undocumented immigrants, Bracho went on to start Latino Health Access in 1993, a pioneering organization that has achieved national acclaim with a revolutionary approach: Instead of seeking trained professionals, Bracho recruits the very immigrants affected by health issues and trains them to preach the gospel of good health practices to their respective neighborhoods. Known as the promotores (promoters) system, it's the ultimate example of preventative medicine and has saved county taxpayers millions of dollars in the long run.
"We do not target people as case studies for examining," says Bracho. "We are them."
Bracho's innovative approach comes from her years of adolescent volunteering and involvement in her own country, which helped her to notice the core issues of health disparities. "I truly wanted to transform health care in Venezuela," she says, but she encountered an unreliable heath-care system that left her frustrated. "I was serving the same kids with the same diseases, and I wanted to change that reality."
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She left her homeland to earn a master's degree in public health at the University of Michigan, which led to her Detroit gig. But it was in OC where her radical plans bore fruit; over the years, she has served as a presenter, trainer and consultant for many agencies that focus on Latino health, community organizing, parenting classes, women's health and health education.
"I wanted to do things differently, and in every process that I was involved, the people making the decisions were the same who were from these institutions," said Bracho. "It was never the community making their own central decisions—if you're not on the table when it comes to issues and decisions, then it is easy to forget who you are fighting for and how critically important it is to invite the community to be part of every detail of decision."
This year marks Latino Health Access's 20th anniversary, and what started solely with Bracho now has 42 paid community workers, 300-plus volunteers (the vast majority of them teens) and a legendary tamale fund-raiser featuring a healthy recipe. The foundation will soon open a park and community center in downtown Santa Ana, right in the heart of one of the most crowded tracts in Southern California. "It's our birthday, so we are the ones giving these presents to our own community," says Bracho "We are each other's cheerleaders."