Happy National Hispanic Heritage Month! This year’s theme is “Latinos: Driving Prosperity, Power and Progress in America.” That theme has made me reflect upon my own family’s history in this country and how far we’ve come.
As many of you know, I am Mexican American and a fifth-generation Arizonan, which means my family has been in Arizona since the 1700s. My great-great Nana Eduvijes Fontes was a pioneer woman, who lived through hard times during the Depression, witnessed battles of the Mexican Revolution, and traveled hundreds of miles along what is now known as the Arizona-Mexico border helping guide soldiers in the Arizona desert. My other great-great Nana operated a food stand, even selling once to Francisco “Pancho” Villa, who was a leader in the Mexican Revolution. My family also includes my Tata Albert, who was a veteran and a mechanic for the City of Phoenix, and my Nana Celia, who raised 11 kids including my mom, Eduvijes.
Raising a large Mexican American family in Phoenix in the 1950s and 60s meant facing discriminatory signs like “No Dogs or Mexicans.” My mom used tell me stories about peering into downtown department store windows, admiring the beautiful dresses, but never being able to go inside. She’d also tell me about the times when the family dressed up to attend mass in the downtown Basilica. My family was never allowed in the upstairs pews—but instead, would be forced to sit and pray in the basement of the church. They were isolated and hidden from the rest of the church goers.
Eduviges Fontes in The Daily Arizona Star paper.
Remarkably, and a testament to the “Prosperity, Power and Progress in America,” my mother’s daughter now runs the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services—just one generation later. My family’s stories, my roots, and our collective experiences shape who I am, and the work I do with all of you. I am very proud of my history and culture. I think about my family every day in our work—what they have experienced and overcame, and how I got here. I know each of you have your own family histories that drive you to advancing the mission of our office and civil rights in our country. I am ecstatic to be able to share mine.
HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra pictured with OCR Director Melanie Fontes Rainer and her mother.
I am also proud to be part of an Administration that supports and honors the diverse history of generations of Latinos, who have shaped this country. This month, President Biden signed a proclamation on National Hispanic Heritage Month to highlight the vital contributions that our colleagues, including our own head of HHS, Secretary Xavier Becerra, as well as more than 62 million Latinos make in the U.S. This Administration has also made equity a Day One priority, including increasing Latino enrollment in healthcare by approximately 1 million people, providing over 7.6 billion dollars in funding for 1400 Community Health Centers (CHCs), which predominately serve Latino and communities of color, and improving prescription drug coverage and lowering costs through the Inflation Reduction Act.
And this month, I participated in a panel titled “Latinas to the Front: Conversation about the State of Women’s Health” at the first-ever HHS Hispanic Health Summit. Latinas are particularly vulnerable in the reproductive health space, with 6.5 million Latinas now living in the 26 states that have banned or are likely to ban abortion. I proudly spoke on the actions that HHS has taken to protect reproductive healthcare, and an overview of civil rights protections that Latinas are covered by, and the resources that are made available by my office. This conversation is important and needed to be had.
Latinas to the Front: Conversation about the State of Women’s Health Panel
The work we’ve done to improve the lives of Latinos living in America makes me proud. I will always use my family’s history as motivation in working with all of you to fulfill the OCR mission. ¡Feliz Mes de la Herencia Hispana!