A Monterey County doctor wanted to help more people. So she learned their language.

·5 min read

Dr. Olga Padron Lopez has a medical guide unlike any other.

Inside the Clinica De Salud Del Valle de Salinas, medical guides are written in an Indigenous language with common phrases like "good morning" and "hello," along with medical terms like "nasal swab" and "COVID-19."

When Padron Lopez arrived in Monterey County, roughly a year ago, she and her colleagues identified ways they could help underserved residents. Padron Lopez realized there was a language barrier for Indigenous Greenfield residents, preventing them from receiving basic resources.

Together, a team of community leaders are trying to revive and support Monterey County's Indigenous population through a collection of medical clinics.

The Greenfield family doctor has been learning Triqui de Copala, a language spoken in and around San Juan Copala, Oaxaca, Mexico.

“The main reason I want to learn Triqui is to be able to communicate better with patients and to be able to better understand what they are going through,” Padron Lopez said. “Some of the patients that speak Triqui have told me that they feel more comfortable and valued because I’m able to make the effort to communicate with them in their language.”

Dr. Olga Magdalena Padron Lopez holds her Indigenous language health guide that she carries with her, which has common phrases to help her better communicate with the Triqui community that visits the Clinica de Salud Del Valle de Salinas in Greenfield, Calif., on Dec. 8, 2021.
Dr. Olga Magdalena Padron Lopez holds her Indigenous language health guide that she carries with her, which has common phrases to help her better communicate with the Triqui community that visits the Clinica de Salud Del Valle de Salinas in Greenfield, Calif., on Dec. 8, 2021.

Trust in the community

Dr. Max Cuevas created the clinic's system through Assembly Bill 1045, which allows Mexican doctors to practice in California at nonprofit clinics.

There are four clinic organizations that are involved in the program.

Initially, the project was launched in primarily agricultural-producing counties. The are locations in Monterey, San Benito, Tulare and Los Angeles counties.

A total of 25 doctors were brought to the U.S. through the initiative: Five in San Benito County, five in Tulare County, five in Los Angeles County and 10 in Monterey County. Seven out of the 10 physicians have been in Monterey County since 2021, three more physicians arrived in May 2022.

Three additional physicians have been requested.

Cuevas brings physicians to Monterey County, who are part of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City, to work in the communities, especially in Greenfield and north county, where the majority of speaking an indigenous language like Triqui, Mixtec and Zapotec.

“There was a moment 15 to 20 years ago when we heard about this population,” Cuevas said. “Speaking these different languages, they came to this country to work, they don’t speak the language, and they don’t know and didn’t know where to access health care.”

Everyone should have access to health care, Cuevas said.

“People are people. As biological entities, we all get sick. So we all need to go to a doctor that we can trust. A doctor that’s going to provide quality health care and build the trust and be able to communicate first and foremost with that individual," he said. "We focused on being able to provide health care services, quality health care services to people in their own language as much as possible.”

In 2021, Clinica De Salud Del Valle de Salinas saw 181 patients that spoke Mixteco; 364 that spoke another indigenous language; and 34,434 that spoke Spanish.

Greenfield has a high Triqui speaking community, according to Sarait Martinez, executive director at Centro Binacional para el Desarrollo Indígena Oaxaqueño.

Martinez works with different Indigenous communities in Monterey County and oversees the nonprofit that provides projects on workers’ rights, which provides orientation, education, training, counseling and referrals.

Intensive training on the professional ethics of Indigenous interpreters to serve as a medium of communication between monolingual Indigenous migrants and various government agencies and other entities is also part of their program.

Many Indigenous people fear that accessing medical care puts them at risk because of their immigration status.

“The fact that a doctor can speak your language is going to create a lot more trust in the community,” she said.

Dr. Olga Magdalena Padron Lopez is reflected in a blood pressure scale as she looks through her backpack inside the COVID-19 test room at the Clinica de Salud Del Valle de Salinas in Greenfield, Calif., on Dec. 8, 2021.
Dr. Olga Magdalena Padron Lopez is reflected in a blood pressure scale as she looks through her backpack inside the COVID-19 test room at the Clinica de Salud Del Valle de Salinas in Greenfield, Calif., on Dec. 8, 2021.

Helping hands

Padron Lopez is one of 10 Mexico-born physicians practicing in Monterey County through this program.

As a 13-year-old, Padron Lopez’s dad would take her to home consultations. He often treated low-income patients. It was during these home visits that Padron Lopez was motivated to study medicine.

In 2012, she graduated from medical school. Two years later, Paron Lopez began her residency as a family doctor. After graduation, she went to work with people in her community, Monterrey, Nuevo León, México.

When she started to learn Triqui, she tried to do it on her own. Padron Lopez taught herself how to speak English and French. Unfortunately, there are not many resources to learn Indigenous languages.

“The best way to learn an Indigenous language, in my experience, is through a person who speaks that language,” Padron Lopez said. “I have a Triqui language teacher … Together, we design a syllabus with the topics that we consider most important in the medical field."

Padron Lopez attends private classes every two weeks through a digital platform.

The time that Padron Lopez spends studying Triqui depends on her workload. However, she tries to practice what she has learned with the people who come to the clinic. Some patients have even taught her new words and phrases.

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In addition to providing quality medical care to this population, Martinez hopes the clinics can employ and support more Indigenous people.

“I try to tell the youth, please don’t let your native language die. Those kids learning an Indigenous language from their parents — like Triqui — are going to get to a stage where they will be able to be doctors, lawyers, police officers," she said. "They’re going to be in important positions where they’ll be able to go back to their communities and help in ways that not even people who are trying to learn the language will be able to help.”

Dr. Olga Magdalena Padron Lopez is photographed inside one of the waiting rooms at the Clinica de Salud Del Valle de Salinas in Greenfield, Calif., on Jan. 7, 2022. Padron Lopez is learning Triqui and Indigenous language to better communicate with the Triqui community she serves in Greenfield.
Dr. Olga Magdalena Padron Lopez is photographed inside one of the waiting rooms at the Clinica de Salud Del Valle de Salinas in Greenfield, Calif., on Jan. 7, 2022. Padron Lopez is learning Triqui and Indigenous language to better communicate with the Triqui community she serves in Greenfield.

David Rodriguez is the education reporter and staff photographer for The Salinas Californian. For any tips or story ideas, you can email him at drodriguez@thecalifornian.com. Subscribe to support local journalism.

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This article originally appeared on Salinas Californian: Monterey County medical clinics aim to serve Indigenous people