The California Senate Judiciary Committee meeting unanimously passed Senate Bill 435 on Tuesday, which would require certain state agencies, boards, and commissions to use separate collection categories and tabulations for each major Latino group, Mesoamerican Indigenous nation, and Mesoamerican Indigenous language group.
Dr. Seciah Aquino, executive director of the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California—which is sponsoring the bill—spoke with State of Reform about the need for this bill.
“For both hearings, we had our champion, our author Sen. Lena Gonzalez, and she’s just an amazing advocate doing the hard work. It was a beautiful show of partnership,” Aquino said.
During the meeting, many individuals provided public testimony in favor of the bill, speaking to the group in both English and Spanish.
“It was beautiful to see the room transform to really reflect the diversity of California,” Aquino said.
Aquino is an immigrant who moved to the US as a child; much of her work and passion to address health inequities stem from her personal experience.
“For all of us, this is a very personal mission,” Aquino said. “A lot of our work over the past three years has been focused on addressing those disparities that were exacerbated by COVID-19, that we know were there beforehand.”
During the pandemic, which disproportionately impacted Latino communities in the state, the coalition took time to ensure that their own team had the resources and tools available to succeed in their roles, such as implementing mental health days. When it comes to treating the community, including employees, the coalition strongly focuses on social determinants of health.
The birth of SB 435 stemmed from a powerful conversation that occurred at the coalition’s policy summit last year. During the summit, issues of discrimination, colorism within the Latino community, and racism were highlighted, as were ways to address these issues.
“One of the conversations that came up … was just around how difficult it is for community members who come from Indigenous nations in Latin America to show up at the doctor, and not speak Spanish,” Aquino said. “From that conversation, we were able to develop a policy solution around data segregation.”
Aquino explained how current data collection within the state will generally group any kind of Latino entity into the Latino/Hispanic group, even though there are 16 million Latinos living in the state, making up about 40% of the state population. She said that disparities exist within the Latin X community, and that subgrouping populations more precisely would improve lives.
“Depending on the group that we are discussing, those disparities can be huge, and so for us being able to dig deeper into those specific subgroups within the Latin X community will help us better address those resources,” Aquino said. “Data can save lives.”
Although she acknowledged that the bill will not solve every problem, Aquino said getting this bill enacted into law is the first step toward creating better health equity for Latino subgroups and Mesoamerican Indigenous communities.
“If we know that in a specific community we have a larger Mayan population, now we can include Maya as a language in written information that’s delivered to those patients or to that community, and even hiring translators,” Aquino said, adding that these individuals deserve to feel safe while showing up at a local hospital.
Aquino brought up how this bill is not the first of its kind, and that the Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) community helped push Assembly Bill 1726 through in 2016, which improved data collection for subgroups within the AAPI community to dive deeper into disparities.
“The beauty of this bill is that we’re building on our learnings from our AAPI community, and we really believe in working in unity with other communities of color,” Aquino said.
While working to get this bill enacted into law, Aquino also remains concerned about the disparities that Latino communities continue to face as a result of COVID-19. She noted how states and the federal government are ending public health emergencies, but that the pandemic is not yet over for Latinos.
“If we look at the numbers, we still have very high rates of infection, and Latinos are still trying to recuperate from the socioeconomic disparities that were exacerbated by the pandemic,” Aquino said.