IN SEARCH OF AZTLÁN
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
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 didnt
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 wasnt 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 Ive 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. Ive
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 Im
involved in a minority training program for underserved communities. So
I havent lost any of those contacts or roots.
Q: Part of our own history and one that youve
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
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: Youre aware of medical concerns that affect Chicanos and Latinos,
in general. One of the areas that youve pinpointed is the high rate
of death among kids who get killed by gangs. I think youve 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
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.
Its 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 thats 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 were
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 todays 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 were here is for mind and body. And that
you cant have a mind without a body. Theyre interrelated.
They cannot be separated. And so thats 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 thats why running is something we dont
just do for exercise.
Many times, we use running almost as a metaphor. Running is hard. Sometimes
we dont 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. Its 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 youre able to conquer
that. We believe that's exactly what happens when youre 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.