Happy National Hispanic Heritage Month! This year’s theme is “Latinos: Driving Prosperity, Power and Progress in America.” That topic has made me reflect on my own family’s history in this country and how far we have 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 18th century. My great-great-grandmother Nana Eduvijes Fontes was a pioneer woman, who lived through difficult 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 to soldiers in Arizona. desert. My other great-great-grandmother Nana had a food stand, and once she even sold food to Francisco “Pancho” Villa, who was a leader of the Mexican Revolution. My family also includes my Tata Albert, who was a veteran and mechanic for the city of Phoenix, and my Nana Celia, who raised 11 children, including my mother, Eduvijes.
Raising a large Mexican-American family in Phoenix in the 1950s and 1960s meant facing discriminatory signs like “No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed.” My mom used to tell me stories about how she would look at the windows of the department stores downtown, she would admire the beautiful dresses, but she could never go inside. She also told me about the times the family dressed elegantly to attend mass at the downtown Basilica. My family was never allowed to sit in the upstairs pews, but instead was forced to sit and pray in the basement of the church. They were isolated and hidden from the rest of the church attendees.
Eduviges Fontes in The Daily Arizona Star newspaper.
Surprisingly, and as a testament to “prosperity, power and progress in America,” my mother’s daughter now heads the Office of Civil Rights at the US Department of Health and Human Services, just a generation later. The stories of my family, 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 at our work: what they have experienced and overcome, and how I got here. I know that each of you has your own family stories that drive you to advance the mission of our office and civil rights in our country. I am delighted to be able to share mine.
HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, pictured with OCR Director Melanie Fontes Rainer and his 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 in 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 health care enrollment of approximately 1 million people, providing more than $7.6 billion in funding for 1,400 Community Health Centers (CHCs), predominantly serving Latino communities and people of color, and improving prescription drug coverage and reducing costs through the Inflation Reduction Act.
And this month I participated in a panel titled “Latinas on the Front Line: Conversation on the State of Women’s Health” at the first HHS Hispanic Health Summit. Latinas are particularly vulnerable in the area of reproductive health: 6.5 million Latinas now live in the 26 states that have banned or likely will ban abortion. I spoke proudly about the actions HHS has taken to protect reproductive health care and an overview of the civil rights protections that cover Latinas and the resources my office makes available. This conversation is important and necessary.
Latinas at the Front: Conversation on the Panel on the State of Women’s Health
The work we have done to improve the lives of Latinos living in the United States makes me proud. I will always use my family’s story as motivation to work with all of you to fulfill OCR’s mission. Happy Hispanic Heritage Month!