Project Dulce: Helping Latino Immigrants Cope With Diabetes

Jul 3, 2013

Abel Corona, 60, sits at his dining table at his Watsonville home. He has diabetes and is a student in a diabetes education class at Salud Para le Gente, a health clinic in Watsonville.

Latino immigrants in the Pajaro Valley are among the growing number of Californians who have diabetes.  A new program trying to reverse that trend balances cultural traditions with health education.

A steak sizzles on the range at Abel Corona’s house on the outskirts of Watsonville. Abel’s wife, Genoveva, is preparing dinner as he sits at the dining table, chatting with one of his sons.  Abel immigrated here from Mexico as a teenager and he works seasonally harvesting strawberries.  Now 60-years-old, he’s one of a growing number of people living with diabetes.   “I have two brothers, my mother had diabetes and I have friends who have diabetes,” said Corona through a translator.

The California Department of Public Health’s latest figures show the number of people with diabetes statewide is on the rise, up 29% over a six-year period. And that diabetes is more prevalent among Latinos in the state versus the overall population.  Public Health officials can’t say exactly why diabetes is hitting certain groups harder than others. But research has shown that the health of Latino immigrants declines the longer they live in the U.S.  “The longer people have lived in this  country, the more we adapt to the American diet and that’s one of the factors. also during harvest season when people work long hours, it’s kind of difficult to have time to prepare their healthy traditional meals,” said Nick Sandoval,  Health Educator with the non-profit clinic Salud Para la Gente.

In the Pajaro Valley, a region with a large Latino population, a survey by the Pájaro Valley Community Health Trust shows 14% of residents have diabetes or are pre-diabetic. So Salud Para la Gente is trying lower that number.  Sandoval teaches a weekly-diabetes education class through a new program called, Project Dulce. It caters to Latino immigrants.  Sandoval weaves in folk tales, gives the occasional impromptu serenade and adds a bit of humor to try to engage his students.  He wants them to learn how to eat better and get a better handle on the disease and its related afflictions. And he hopes the class will help ease some of the concerns he hears from students.  “I had one gentleman tell me when we started the class, he and his wife come to the class, she’s a homemaker., and he works in the fields.  He goes, I’m the only breadwinner. and he goes and if something happens to me, then there goes my family,” said Sandoval.  He assures his students that diabetes is not a death sentence. That the disease can be managed, so that they can still provide for their families.

For Abel Corona whose been in the class for three months, the information is starting to sink in.  He now reads nutrition  labels and watches what he eats. “So before I used to eat a lot of meat, tortillas, a lot of carne asada, a lot of carnitas, so now I eat that but I eat that seldomly. Now I eat less tortillas. Now I eat 2 or 3 tortillas whereas I used to eat a lot more than that,” said Corona through a translator.  Back at his dining table, his wife Genoveva sets down a plate of thinly sliced steak, pinto beans, avocado slices, and a chopped salad of tomatoes, onions, cilantro and cactus plant called nopales.  This night Abel has chosen Genoveva’s cooking over a meal out at Round Table Pizza. He likes pizza, but he says it has too many carbs.