Reclaiming Latino/Hispanic birth and breastfeeding traditions

Hispanic Americans have positively influenced our nation for generations.

One of those women, HealthConnect One’s program manager Brenda Reyes, RN, CLC, works fiercely to improve maternal child health outcomes, especially for Latino/Hispanic communities. Reyes has more than 15 years of experience working with diverse organizations to create and implement peer support programs for new moms and families.

Reyes says she is overwhelmed by the ever-growing list of Latino/Hispanic people who have made a positive impact on our country. Historically speaking, she cites community organizers who fought for workers’ rights, like Cesar Chavez. Reyes acknowledges the work of her community members in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago too, who have been instrumental in helping her get to where she is today. She remembers the parents in her community who rallied and built the high school she graduated from. She pays tribute to the work of Guadalupe Reyes, a woman devoted to advocacy work for Latino/Hispanic children with disabilities.  

Reyes expresses gratitude for the maternal child health leaders and other justice leaders like breastfeeding peer counselors and community-based doulas; the “trailblazers in our communities.”

“I’m quite sure they have had the biggest impact in our Latino community when it comes to racial equity,” Reyes says.

She extols countless individuals, non-profits and grassroots efforts, not only in her community but nationally who have worked to amplify the Latino/Hispanic voice and collectively organize to advocate for the needs of Latino families, like addressing allocation of resources, issues of gentrification and reproductive rights to name a few.  

“Nothing has been given to us,” Reyes declares. “My community has fought for what we have.” 

This month, from September 15 to October 15, HealthConnect One will celebrate this fervor and capacity to endure during Hispanic/Latino Heritage Month with a blog series, “Reclaiming our traditions on breastfeeding and birth.” Reyes and her colleagues invite Latino/Hispanic leaders, advocates and supporters of breastfeeding and birth to participate by sharing a story, poem, picture, art piece or video in Spanish or English.  

Reyes points out that Latino/Hispanic culture is not homogenous, so she speaks to Latino/Hispanic birth culture from a personal perspective.

During her pregnancy, her family rallied around her, protecting her and her growing baby from the effects of stress.

“My ancestors had a very clear idea and connection about emotion and stress [during pregnancy and beyond,]” Reyes begins. “They knew the impact of emotion.”

That meant household chores were alleviated from her routine during the “Cuarentena,” 40 days after the postpartum period. Food and nutrition were central to the support she received too. She learned from her mother and grandmother about the importance of healthy activity during pregnancy, and the way movement could replace medicalized pain intervention during birth. Once she gave birth, she carried her baby in a rebozo, the same way her mother carried her. 

These beautiful traditions that Reyes hopes to magnify during Hispanic Heritage Month and always, are often overcast by the very serious struggles Latino/Hispanic families face.

“We have to acknowledge the system, the policies that are in place that impact Latino families,” Reyes begins. “I hear consistently this barrier of language.”

Not only are institutions failing to provide health services in a culturally humble or sensitive way; at its worst, information and services aren’t even being communicated or provided to them.

“We deal with institutional racism,” Reyes continues.  

And Latino/Hispanic families are impacted by immigration issues.

“Immigration impacts a very large percentage of our community,” says Reyes. Often unvoiced, she says immigration needs to become part of our national discussion around maternal child health, because Latino/Hispanic communities carry the stress of immigration status which has far-reaching implications like foregoing or discontinuing prenatal and postpartum care.

Moreover, Latina mothers are working mothers and need workplace policies to support them. There’s also a lack of leadership opportunities for Latino people.

As allies, Reyes asks non-Hispanic birth and breastfeeding supporters to consider what allyship means.

“What have you done to advocate for justice when it comes to the Latino community?” she wonders. “How are you building trusting relationships within our community? Are you listening to our people? What are you doing to address racism in your institution? Are you creating safe spaces for families? What are you doing to engage, listen and follow the lead of Latino people?” 

These questions are ever-important as National Breastfeeding Month came to a close with Black Breastfeeding Week (BBW), and unsupportive sentiment cluttered social media, claiming BBW “divisive.” [Read this and this if you’re confused about why we need to acknowledge the unique needs of certain communities.] 

Reyes quotes Urban Strategies’ National Director of Health Initiatives Diana N. Derige, DrPH:  “…we stand with our black sisters to end stereotyping and bias in maternity care and breastfeeding support practices,” and revisits HealthConnect One’s internal values: “ We respect that people of color, and other groups with shared identities, need their own space to meet from time to time, away from others who may not share the same identities and challenges.” 

“Let’s honor people of color space,” Reyes suggests.

 Beyond Hispanic Heritage Month, Reyes says she is excited about HealthConnect One’s  birth equity work and the collaboration with other national organizations that it entails.    

“I look forward to learning and challenging ourselves and stretching ourselves a little bit deeper,” she says.  

Always a challenge to overcome, Reyes remains optimistic.  

“I live right across from a playground,” she begins. “It’s quite beautiful to be able to witness children playing; to hear the laughter and the joy, see the smiles and the energy. That gives me hope. You have to look forward.”  

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