New Mexico Breastfeeding Task Force Deputy Director Monica Esparza, CLC and her 13-year-old daughter have started practicing Baile folklórico (Mexican folk dance) together to connect with their culture. The birth of Esparza’s daughter and subsequent WIC peer counselor position started her on her path to maternal child health advocacy.
While searching for resources for her clients, Esparza networked with the New Mexico Breastfeeding Task Force (NMBTF), ultimately helping establish the Albuquerque chapter.
An immigrant herself, Esparza’s experience navigating health systems inspired her to continue to help others face language barriers and other challenges to get the care they deserve.
Identity erasure and revival
From September 15 to October 15, we celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month to honor the rich histories, cultural influences and contributions of Hispanics/Latinx in the United States. Guest speaker Tecpaxochitl Mireya Gonzalez points out in the 2021 Nikki & Nikki LIVE: Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month webinar that the term Hispanic is not accurate though and dismisses diversity.
“What does it mean to be Hispanic?” Gonzalez poses. “There are a lot of nuances.”
Latinx are a diverse group with ancestry from 28 countries, USBC reports.
To identify Spanish-speaking nations as the origin– an indicator of a colonized country– is to dismiss indigenous identities, “to dismiss all of our ancestry,” as Gonzalez puts it in the Nikki&Nikki discussion.
It was breastfeeding/chestfeeding/bodyfeeding (the term Gonzalez uses) that allowed Indigenous People to be resilient through colonization, political injustices and other hardship.
“We have these cultural practices that sustain us,” she says.
Esparza says, “We are resilient, but we shouldn’t have to be.”
“We are smart and we know how to solve our own problems,” she continues. “We need to make sure people listen and support us.”
Supporting diversity and cultural attachments
In the webinar, Gonzalez details ways in which lactation care providers (LCPs) can best support a diverse group of people.
First, questionnaires and intake forms should reflect diversity. Allow individuals to self identify.
Gonzalez explains that the CDC and the Census have allowed for the identification of Hispanic origin (which she acknowledges can be controversial because indigenous identity is not a subgroup; in fact, indigenous identity predates European invasion).
With this tweak in documentation, since 2009, there has been an 85 percent increase in the Native population, Gonzalez reports. There is dignity in this recognition, she says.
LCPs can help individuals maintain their cultural attachments and build on their cultural values when identity is recognized. Birth, infant feeding and other cultural practices that were stolen, repackaged, and then resold back to Indigenous People can be restored. LCPs are uniquely situated to assist in this restoration of an entire food system and reclamation of health.
This includes “re-indigenizing” agriculture– fueling pregnant bodies with pre colonial foods and feeding young children indigenous, complementary foods alongside breastfeeding.
Secondly, Gonzalez urges trust-building. Create spaces where individuals feel seen and heard, ideally within the early prenatal period. Allow them to tell their stories, or help them to discover their stories. “Tell me about lactation in your lineage,” Gonzalez offers language for the LCP. Be aware that this transgenerational work can bring up trauma as birth and lactation often intersect with domestic abuse, sexual assault, forced migration, etc.
Esparza, too, emphasizes the value in building trust, listening and honoring stories and shares that these are the components that help her thrive as an LCP.
Increasing representation in LCPs
NMBTF offers a CLC scholarship program to those who self-identify as low income women of color throughout New Mexico in order to diversify the field of LCPs. The scholarship covers the online Lactation Counselor Training Course (LCTC) and the AALP exam. In its two years, the program has awarded 28 scholarships.
Since the LCTC has gone virtual, Esparza says that some of the participants have benefitted from the accessibility and self-paced nature of this platform; however, it has created barriers for some. In many rural areas in New Mexico, internet access is not always reliable. For those who speak English as a second language, a virtual platform requires a different learning process entirely, Esparza explains.
With these challenges in mind, Esparza hosts two study groups a month which offer an opportunity to review the material and provide peer-to-peer encouragement.
NMBTF recently started a virtual breastfeeding support group, and Esparza says that LCTC participants sometimes join these meetings to interact with real-life infant feeding challenges in their own language.
Esparza shares that LA Publishing provides some of their lactation education materials in Spanish. Health Education Associates, Inc. offers many of their materials in Spanish as well. And this month, Lactation Education Resources (LER) announced that their 95-hour course is now offered in Spanish.
Author Michelle Hackney and Illustrator Mia Ortiz-Gandara created Mama’s Leche, a bilingual children’s picture book, told from the infant’s perspective. You can find a reading of the story here. The second book in their series, Brave and Strong, imagines a premature baby’s journey into the world.
Without diminishing the importance of Spanish- language materials, Gonzalez shared with Nikki&Nikki participants her hope to see lactation education developed into indigenous languages.
Esparza emphasizes the need to include BIPOC communities when policies are being drafted and legislation is being written so that everyone’s voice is heard, considered and amplified.
Esparza’s work through NMBTF has generated strong collaborations with organizations that interact with families at all stages. The coalition partners with the Indigenous Community Doula Association, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, birth and justice organizations, Family Friendly New Mexico, and health care providers among others. NMBTF is in the process of creating a lactation curriculum for home visitors to best serve families. Learn more about NMBTF’s success and future plans in their 2020 Annual Report available in English and Spanish.