Dr. Frank Meza
August 25, 2000

Q: Dr. Meza, how did your experiences growing up in the barrio affect your decision to go into medicine?

A: Well, growing up in a neighborhood where there wasn't a lot of resources, the concept of having your own personal doctor was kind of a rare thing. Health care was really something that we did kind of episodically. If somebody was really ill, we used to go to County General Hospital. Later I found out that really wasn't the best way to get medical care. And I decided at that time, through some revelations from some fairly activist groups when I was in high school, that maybe there was a better way, and that some of us needed to become health professionals to kind of begin that change.

Q: Where, specifically, did you grow up?

A: I grew up in an area that today is called "Frogtown." It sits right below Dodger's Stadium, basically, Elysian Park. My family was one of those families who lived in the Palos Verdes area--which was Dodger's Stadium today--and [we] were evicted, or had to move out, and they moved down the hill, to this little area about two miles outside of Los Angeles. The downtown quadrant. So I grew up in a fairly segregated community, probably about 95% Spanish-speaking, Mexican-American. The L.A. River was kind of our home. That's where we played. That was our whole identity, and I never ventured more than about three miles from there, till I left high school.

Q: When you were going to school, you were probably one of the few Chicanos in medical school. How did that experience inspire you to get others involved in medicine?

A: When I was in college, there were people that were trying to make sure that we were successful. And that we would go into professions that would be of use to our community. They were kind of those first frontiersmen of that whole area of education. They were breaking ground. A lot of them were not successful--some were, some weren't--because they didn’t know all of the obstacles that were ahead of them. I was in that group that was starting to create some momentum, where had a few more numbers. So I never felt as isolated as probably that first group. My medical school class had nine Chicanos in it. [It] was the largest at that time.

Q: What kind of efforts, since then, have you taken to get Latinos involved in medicine?

A: Well, even as an undergraduate, I was already starting organizations. I started Chicanos for Creative Medicine at Cal State, Northridge. I helped create a national focus to Chicanos for Creative Medicine around 1968. Even though I wasn’t the founder of the organization, I was there right after the first meetings were held. So I was pretty involved in the fundamental organization of Chicanos for Creative Medicine. Later, I got involved with National Chicano Health Organization, which became a federally-funded program. This is around 1970. And I’ve been involved with these organizations to this date. I was also there at the founding of La Grama, which was the first Chicano medical student organization in 1974. [I'm] currently involved with both the California Chicano Medical Student Association and the California Latino Medical Association. I’ve been there at the beginning of all those organizations, and have stayed as involved as I can, even to date. I now am fortunate to have medical students that rotate through this clinic and residents I mentor, and I’m involved in a minority training program for underserved communities. So I haven’t lost any of those contacts or roots.

Q: Part of our own history and one that you’ve researched is our indigenous background--the Aztecas, the Meso-American civilizations--and I understand that they were into medicine. Could you tell us little bit about that, and how that may have changed your outlook on medicine?

A: Medicine was a very important part of all the Meso-American cultures, and all the South American cultures, and even some of the early North American native cultures. The concept of health and healing is something that you find in all native peoples throughout the world. Whether we talk about Mother Africa, or whether we talk about the Americas, or whether you talk about Mesopotamia. Native peoples believe that healing is a vital part of all life.
In Meso-America, or in the Americas, when the Spanish finally made their conquest in the 1500's, they found a civilization that had a highly sophisticated pharmacopeia. They had tremendous amounts of medications that weren't even in ex- existence, anywhere in Europe. Europe, at this time, was in the Dark Ages. They still believed that trolls and "bad humors" caused disease, and they came to a place that really had running water, that had sanitation, that had proper disposal for filth. They believed in bathing and sweat baths. All of these things [were] nonexistent [in Spanish culture]. Bacterial theory was something that was already starting to flourish in the Americas. And in Europe, it was not even close to being found yet, at that time. So, Europe found a place much more sophisticated in terms of health and pharmacology at that time.

Q: You’re aware of medical concerns that affect Chicanos and Latinos, in general. One of the areas that you’ve pinpointed is the high rate of death among kids who get killed by gangs. I think you’ve described it as “an epidemic.” In what ways is this an epidemic, and how does that differ from our preconceived notions of what an epidemic might be?

A: An epidemic refers to a disease rate that is not consistent with a group of people. In other words, something that is way over the line. It’s not acceptable. And we would not tolerate this in any other group. There are two groups, in the United States, that have tremendously high rates of teenage pregnancy [and] violent deaths before the age of twenty-one--children killing children. And the two groups are Afro-Americans and Latino-Americans. There are those that feel that that’s just cultural variance, that these groups have these cultural variances. Obviously, none of us buy that. The one factor that [can make] these things disappear [is] education. If you educate people, if you eliminate poverty, if people have jobs, if people have a [reason] to live, then they have no [reason] to be violent or to kill each other, or to harm each other. Teenage pregnancy disappears at that point. So, we have a situation where children are killing children in our community, and where children are having children, and continuing these cycles of poverty and ignorance. These are really the root of our problem. Not our culture. Our culture is based in thousands and thousands of years of very solid healthy traditions.

Q: Quite apart from your medical work, you created the Aztlán Field and Track Club. What is the purpose of that club?

A: Aztlán Track Club is an important component of the philosophy for health. In 1974, some very elite athletes in our communities started to feel that it was important that people recognize that we had more purpose other than just "our" sports. And so, in order to de-emphasize one of the sports that had been attributed to our community, boxing, there were a lot of kids that were really fine runners. And we felt that it was more of a positive role model in sport to focus on track and field, long distance running, which we had excelled for forever. And which is actually part of our Native American tradition. Many of our native peoples had a philosophy that incorporated running as part of life. And we’re talking about North America, with some of the Hopi and the Navajo, all the way to the Rarámuris of a Meso-America. But most Native Americans ran as part of their life. It was part of the spirit.
Running means movement. There is no life without movement. And we feel that in today’s society, having cars, having remote T.V.s are actually a buy-in into a very unhealthy lifestyle. And that running kind of reminds us that the reason that we’re here is for mind and body. And that you can’t have a mind without a body. They’re interrelated. They cannot be separated. And so that’s why running is kind of important. It goes past being a sport. It's part of being the whole energy that native peoples believed in, and that’s why running is something we don’t just do for exercise.
Many times, we use running almost as a metaphor. Running is hard. Sometimes we don’t want to do it. But we know that if we do it, [we'll] get a reward. And sometimes it's not an immediate reward. It’s a reward that lasts. There is a euphoria when we do something that looks impossible, and we're able to do it. When we're able to endure the pain, the shortness of breath, the aching muscles, but you endure it and you make it. There is this pleasure that is [undescribable] once you’re able to conquer that. We believe that's exactly what happens when you’re trying to achieve academically or in business or in politics. The ability to do it, to not find an excuse to do it. We find no excuses for anything that we do. And running just reminds us on a daily basis [of] that struggle. We see native peoples talking about the struggle with life and death. Running reminds us of the struggle against pain, the struggle against being lazy, the struggle against succumbing to the easy path. Every day we force ourselves to go out there and run. And it reminds [us] that [we] are always filled with a challenge. Running is just a reminder.