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YES! Photo by Acavius Largo

6 Cities Designing for Health

The way we design our physical environment — our buildings, streets, and neighborhoods — can transform our well-being. We learned this more than a century ago, when the newly created New York City Department of Street Cleaning and a 1901 ban on poorly ventilated tenement houses helped curb the spread of infectious diseases. And later, with the nation’s turn toward highways, urban sprawl, and communities without sidewalks, we also saw the rise of diabetes and other conditions related to inactivity. Active design aims to improve public health through urban planning and architecture. Done right, it can break citizens out of social isolation, encourage movement, and preserve natural resources.

HoustonRestore the bayous for connection

Anna Clark is a freelance writer and the editor of A Detroit Anthology. She is online at


Photo by Patrick Feller

While long dependent on the oil and gas industry, Houston is increasingly investing in sustainability. The city’s $480 million Bayou Greenways Initiative, a massive public-private project, will connect 10 bayous and creeks across the city and its periphery. In the past, bayous were straightened out and paved over to control flooding. Now, Houston is bringing these low-lying rivers back to their natural life: slow, gleaming waterways full of fish and bordered by wildflowers, grasses, and native trees. The city is also adding 4,000 acres of new and equitably distributed green spaces that will improve water quality. And it’s providing an alternative to high-traffic streets by developing 300 continuous miles of hike-and-bike trails along the bayous. When complete, an estimated six in 10 residents will live within 1.5 miles of a bayou, park, or trail. For the nation’s fourth-largest city, which sprawls over some 600 square miles, this is a powerful way to stitch its diverse population together.

EdinburghSlowing traffic to 20 mph


Photo via Shutterstock

Scotland’s capital city is rolling out a plan to cap the speed limit at 20 mph on 80 percent of its roads. The slowdown is designed to encourage people to walk and bike, rather than drive, and to enhance pedestrian safety. A 2012 report by Transport Scotland recommends 20 mph speed limits on certain roads to improve bike and pedestrian safety. The Edinburgh slow roads movement builds on pioneering slowdown policies in Portsmouth, England, and Scotland’s council of Fife, both of which implemented 20 mph limits on much of their roads. According to early data from Portsmouth, the total number of road collisions has dropped 13 percent. The Edinburgh plan is expected to be phased in starting in early 2017. Environmental advocates say that encouraging walking and cycling will contribute to the nationwide effort to reduce air pollution and lower carbon emissions.

AlbuquerqueApartments with on-site social services


Photo by Casitas de Colores

Casitas de Colores is a family-friendly, mixed-income apartment complex in downtown Albuquerque that stands out with its bright stucco colors. But more dramatic is what’s inside. This 71-unit complex has an on-site social services coordinator who connects resident families with local child care and health care providers and hosts bimonthly health screenings and trainings. The building’s active design helps, too. Walking paths, open stairwells, courtyards, a 24-hour fitness room, bike storage, and a children’s play area are integrated into its design plan. Reduced-speed elevators subtly nudge residents toward the stairs, and the building is within walking distance of major city destinations.

DetroitVacant land becomes useful


Photo by Anna Clark

City leaders have long been trying to find new uses for vacant spaces in shrinking cities. In Detroit, officials have found that one of the best ideas is also the simplest: The Detroit Land Bank Authority allows city residents to purchase the vacant lot neighboring their home for $100, with no red tape. Residents also soon may be able to lease a vacant lot in their neighborhood for $25 a year, so long as a neighborhood or local block group endorses its intended use. The Land Bank Authority empowers thousands of citizens to take ownership of land that has been long neglected in their communities. Once-dangerous eyesores are finding new life as gardens, playgrounds, pocket parks, off-street parking lots, flower farms, and art installations.

CincinnatiBuild equity while you rent


Photo by Zerbor/Shutterstock

Renters around the country are financially and physically vulnerable. While half of them pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent, according to the Center for American Progress, they have nothing to show for it on the other end compared to homeowners, who build equity as they pay down their mortgages. Renting Partnerships gives Cincinnati renters a third option: Build equity through social capital. In exchange for fulfilling commitments in an equity lease agreement — like work assignments on the property, timely payment of rent, and participating in resident meetings — renters earn financial credits. Money saved by low turnover is invested in a financial fund. After five years, renters can exchange credits for cash. Renters can earn a maximum of $10,000 over 10 years. While Renting Partnerships has been a stand-alone nonprofit since 2012, its equity experiment stretches back to 2002 — enough time to see how this model provides renters with greater control over housing conditions and inspires them to engage more with their community. Landlords benefit from property improvements and high occupancy, and the City of Cincinnati welcomes more stable residents into full civic participation. And the movement is spreading. This summer, a version of the program tailored for local artists launched in Cleveland.

San FranciscoDoctor's orders: a walk in the park

San Francisco

Photo by Jon E Oringer/Shutterstock

In 1965, a Mississippi Delta doctor named Jack Geiger began writing prescriptions for fruits and vegetables for malnourished children at one of the nation’s first community health centers. The local market filled the prescriptions and billed the center. This holistic idea of public health is echoed today in a partnership between physicians and the San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department. For patients struggling with chronic and mental illnesses, as well as diseases related to inactivity, doctors might prescribe, for example, a 45-minute walk in Glen Canyon Park three mornings a week. The more specific the instructions, the more likely patients are to follow them, according to one doctor involved. Not only do walks improve human health, they also build deeper relationships with the Bay Area’s natural resources. Parks officials are making their open spaces as inviting as possible by providing free group walks in parks around the city and providing free water bottles and pedometers to participants.

Anna Clark is a freelance writer and the editor of A Detroit Anthology. She is online at

Online Exclusive

Advocating for a Healthier Home Away from Home College students are challenging mental health stigmas on college campuses

They tell us from the time we’re young

To hide the things that we don’t like about ourselves Inside ourselves

I know I’m not the only one who spent so long attempting to be someone else

“Secrets” by singer/songwriter Mary Lambert, who has bipolar disorder

Kelly Davis arrived at college carrying heavy baggage — bipolar disorder and an eating disorder. Dragged down by severe depression, she barely made it through her first two years at American University in Washington, D.C. “I didn’t go to classes a lot. I didn’t get out of bed,” recalls Davis, now 22. “After freshman year, I got into an abusive relationship. I was drinking heavily, frequently.” When she felt hopeless, she would tell herself that she would one day be better and try to prevent what happened to her from happening to others.

Donna Jackel

Donna Jackel is a professional journalist who these days focuses largely on disability rights, social justice, and animal welfare. Her work has been published in national publications, including The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chicago Tribune, Next Avenue, and The Bark.

That she has.

Davis went on to serve as president of her university’s chapter of Active Minds, a national mental health advocacy organization. Davis also organized mental health events and programs for her campus’ wellness center.

Davis is among the hundreds of college students who no longer care to hide their mental illness — or be judged by it. Student advocates are passionate about decreasing stigma and expanding campus mental health services. They are pushing college administrators to create more equitable mental health leave policies and are demanding clearer rules for readmission.

These advocates are driven by the fact that about 20 percent of 15- to 24-year-olds’ deaths each year are suicides. They are emboldened by celebrity mental health disclosures and the LGBT movement’s civil rights successes. They have the confidence to come out, organize, and advocate for themselves in large numbers.

These students are emboldened by their sheer numbers. In the 2014 National Survey of College Counseling Centers, 86 percent of center directors at 274 institutions reported a steady increase in students arriving on campus already on psychiatric medication. UCLA’s 2015 American Freshman Survey polled more than 150,000 incoming freshmen at 227 four-year American colleges and universities. Of those, 10 percent reported feeling “frequently” depressed, more than 3 percentage points higher than five years ago.

Several college mental health psychologists say the fact that more teens with mental illness are attending college is partly due to advances in mental health care. “We have students who 20 years ago wouldn’t have been in higher ed,” says Chris Brownson, director of the Counseling and Mental Health Center at the University of Texas at Austin. “Now, due to earlier treatment, better treatment, many are functioning better and can be wildly successful.”

Most students don’t even know the anti-stigma effort exists.
—Ameera Ladak, senior at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver

The increased demand for mental health care has, however, overtaxed many college health centers, resulting in waits as long as three weeks for initial appointments. This discourages some students from seeking help, says Davis. She and other student advocates want colleges and universities to increase counseling staff and add more options, like peer-to-peer counseling.

Young advocates will tell you that stigma is still prevalent and that disclosure takes courage. But talking about mental illness is the best way to reduce prejudice and ignorance, says Ameera Ladak, a senior at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. She finds a huge disconnect between the overall student body and those with a mental illness.

“Most students don’t even know the anti-stigma effort exists,” she says. “At campus mental wellness events, people rarely approach [our] booth. They don’t want to be seen as crazy. That’s the main challenge facing us right now.”

Davis spoke out about her eating and mood disorders to help others and found that in doing so, she freed herself. “As I started opening up about my struggles, I realized there were other people with similar experiences, waiting for someone else to bring it up” she says. “The quality of my relationships was transformed, even with acquaintances, because I no longer felt I had something to hide or to be ashamed of.”

Revealing your most private, painful moments can be scary but liberating. Sixteen years old and newly diagnosed, Sarah Berendt isolated herself, but as college approached, the teen threw off her shame and self-loathing. “I realized it wasn’t fair that I had labeled myself as crazy. I knew I had potential to do something worthwhile, which allowed me to feel more comfortable telling friends.”

She confided to her freshman roommate at Lourdes University in Sylvania, Ohio. “It was the most awkward conversation I’ve ever had,” Berendt recalls. “I told her that I was on medication for a condition called bipolar disorder. She was not entirely comfortable living with someone with bipolar, but over time, she got a lot more comfortable.”

Four years later, the once withdrawn Berendt leads a support group at the local National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), a grassroots mental illness advocacy organization, and is president of her university’s Active Minds chapter. She was instrumental in relocating the campus mental health center to a less conspicuous location to encourage more students to seek treatment. A 2012 NAMI study found that 50 percent of surveyed students who dropped out of college for mental health reasons had never sought counseling.

Students say they are drawn to organizations like these out of a hunger for community and a desire to help their peers find mental health care. The students get to write chapter bylaws, fundraise, and hold events—like De-stress festivals and Defeat Depression runs. At Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Madison, New Jersey, campus, students paraded a banner with 1,000 handprints that read: “1,000 Students Die From Suicide Each Year.” Student mental health groups also invite to campus guest speakers with mental illness who lead successful lives and run movies that treat mental illness responsibly.

20 percent of 15- to 24-year-olds’ deaths each year are suicides.

A new Active Minds program, Transform Your Campus, gives students tools to shape policy. For instance, students at the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio, created a mental health curriculum for freshmen and collaborated with college administrators to print a 24-hour crisis number on all student ID cards.

Recent college graduate Kelly Davis is using all she learned as a student mental health advocate in her new job as a policy and programming associate at Mental Health America, a national nonprofit dedicated to increasing mental wellness. She is confident the college student mental health movement will continue to expand both in numbers and influence.

“What it’s really about is looking at mental health as part of the larger campus culture,” Davis says. “We’re investing so much in universities, they need to invest in us as well.”

Donna Jackel

Donna Jackel is a professional journalist who these days focuses largely on disability rights, social justice, and animal welfare. Her work has been published in national publications, including The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chicago Tribune, Next Avenue, and The Bark.


My Year of Magical Tidying

Clothes hanger

Do your socks spark joy? How about your college textbooks? How many spare rolls of toilet paper truly make you happy?

Erin Sagen

Erin Sagen is an associate editor at YES! Magazine. She lives in Seattle and writes about food, health, and suburban sustainability. Follow her on Twitter @erin_sagen.

These are the kinds of questions that have been chirping at me for months, ever since I first heard about the bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Japanese organization expert Marie Kondo (or KonMari, as her clients call her). Kondo is a sort of spiritual medium who hates clutter but loves communing with your pilled leggings and rusted frying pans. To people who have followed her program on tidying — in which they evaluate, sort, and discard or store every object they own — she’s enlightened; to people who have just eaten lunch next to a wide-eyed colleague who is recalling a weekend of obsessive sock folding, she’s disturbed. But either impression hints at genius, and the results, I found, are empirical. It begins with the question, “Does this spark joy?”

It’s a simple question that evokes a series of reflections on your mindfulness, sanity, and health. You start by herding one category at a time onto the floor: first your clothes, next your books, then paperwork, “kimono” (miscellaneous), and, finally, mementos. You lift one object from the pile and hold it in your hands — Does it spark joy, you ask? Incredibly, the answer will most likely be no. (It was for two-thirds of my queries.) Having become somewhat of a tidying anthropologist in the last several months, I’ve learned this response is the dominant one. Co-workers, friends, and relatives have admitted, often with lowered voices and arched expressions, as if the contents of their wardrobes were eavesdropping in the doorway, that their clothes failed to spark anything other than disappointment. In fact, their clothes often made them feel frumpy, old, boring, uncomfortable, or just plain uninspired.

Finishing the clothes category left me dizzy with emotion. I felt confused, wrecked, inspired, doubtful, and energized. As I contemplated the categories that remained, something dawned on me: I had been caught in an idealistic stupor, thinking this process would evoke only feelings of catharsis, that it wouldn’t require diligence and some unpleasant self-discoveries.

But the KonMari method has inspired a massive, global movement not because it encourages perfection, but because it encourages the embracing of our imperfections. Let go of that old yearbook, you can hear Kondo shout, those times have passed. That scarf your great-aunt knitted you but is too ugly and itchy to wear? Get rid of it! Guilt is not happiness! Our rational minds can persuade us to hold on to everything, to grip it close, but our hearts are more courageous. Mine told me that I could donate that pair of joyless yet costly new boots, and I’d be fine; that many of my childhood books were, in fact, pretty damned creepy and weird and not endearing enough to pass on to my children; that the violent underground art lining my bedroom walls is no longer edgy but just intolerable, and that’s OK. Turns out I prefer less anxiety in the a.m.

And less everything in general. With each item I pulled off the floor, over the course of several months, I asked myself a profound question: Should I let this go? It was a question bigger than a sweatshirt or toothbrush, and it elicited more primal fear than I had anticipated. My heart raced like a small, helpless animal as I wondered, am I enough without this thing? And if so, will I be safe without it? As I dropped more into the give-away bag, though, my chest swelled with gratitude, and the answer became clear: Yes, of course.

Surrendering two-thirds of my stuff to various charities — Kondo says that gifting friends and family with our unwanted crap is unfair and actually prevents us from moving on — did more than help tidy my home. My goal was to carve out some personal sanctuary and free up our space from clutter. I’m still working on achieving those goals, but in some ways I’m already there. By reflecting on all the objects I had spent years stowing away, both in my psyche and physical space, I rediscovered something I had long forgotten: the trust that I am already whole. If one day all my clothes, books, and mementos disappeared, I would still be standing, waiting for the next moment to reveal itself.

Erin Sagen

Erin Sagen is an associate editor at YES! Magazine. She lives in Seattle and writes about food, health, and suburban sustainability. Follow her on Twitter @erin_sagen.


What Our Breasts Are Telling Us

Bra hanging

When Florence Williams was breastfeeding her infant daughter a decade ago, she started thinking more about the mechanics of her body. A longtime science and environmental journalist, Williams began to delve into the purpose and function of women’s breasts and to examine the chemicals that were reportedly found in breast milk.

Sarah van Gelder

Sarah van Gelder is co-founder of YES! Magazine. Follow the Edge of Change Road Trip here, and connect with Sarah on Twitter @sarahvangelder.

Her investigation would span years and would lead her to a dramatic step: testing her own breast milk and, later, having both herself and her young daughter evaluated for chemicals in their bodies.

The result: higher than average levels of the kinds of substances found in common consumer products, such as phthalates, triclosan, and BPA (bisphenol A). Williams and her daughter started a “detox diet,” weaning themselves off perfumed soaps and other exposure risks. Her research became the 2012 book, Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, which won a Los Angeles Times Book Prize and an Audie audiobook award for general nonfiction.

Editor at Large Sarah van Gelder spoke with Williams about her book and how the environment affects women’s breasts at every stage of life.

Sarah van Gelder: Are there any other organs of the body that go through as many changes?

Florence Williams: There really aren’t. And the reason for that is because breasts are really the last organs in our body to develop. They really don’t develop until the last trimester of pregnancy in adulthood, and so because of that, they’re sort of undifferentiated for a long time. They go through these incredible cellular changes every monthly cycle and then, of course, every pregnancy. They’re these incredibly dynamic organs, and then because of that, they are very influenced by the environment.

Evolution designed breasts to be responsive to the environment. They’re full of estrogen receptors, which are the body’s way of communicating with the outside world. Circulating estrogen tells the breasts when to grow in puberty. Estrogen tells our breasts when we’re pregnant and when they need to start building the mammary glands, so they’re very hormonally sensitive. Our world is filled with hormones and substances that mimic hormones.

van Gelder: One of the things I found fascinating about your book is that you actually test yourself to find out what kind of chemical body burden you’re carrying around and what’s going on with your child, as well. Why did you choose to essentially experiment on yourself and your daughter?

Williams: Participatory journalism appeals to me. I think it makes the science a little bit more human. I found out that there were a handful of chemicals that government scientists were looking at to try and figure out why girls were going through puberty earlier. A number of those chemicals could be tested fairly cheaply in urine. My daughter [then around 6 or 7 years old] and I both were curious about our body burdens for those chemicals. We worked with a nonprofit near Boston, the Silent Spring Institute. Their toxicologists walked us through a little study of our own.

van Gelder: What did you find?

Williams: We tested for three or four of these hormonally active chemicals, including phthalates, which are commonly found in products like paint and plastics; and triclosan, which is an antibacterial compound frequently added to products like soaps and cutting boards. We also tested for BPA (bisphenol A). We found out that we had higher than the U.S. average levels for some of these chemicals.

We worked with the toxicologists to try to reduce our levels by doing a “detox diet” and trying to reduce our exposures by avoiding products like scented shampoos and soaps. For some of the chemicals, such as BPA, it was quite easy to reduce our bodies’ chemical loads. But for other substances, like the phthalates, we couldn’t budge our chemical loads very much. So even though we try to control our exposures, we can only have so much impact on our chemical load because we don’t really know where these exposures are coming from.

For me, this brought home the necessity for manufacturers and the government to take responsibility for keeping hazardous substances out of the marketplace. We cannot be totally effective gatekeepers for our own families.

What’s encouraging is that when the marketplace changes, our bodies, pretty quickly, reflect those changes.
—Florence Williams

van Gelder: When you went on that low-toxin diet and found that some chemicals weren’t reduced, are those the chemicals that bioaccumulate? Whatever chemicals you’ve been exposed to over the years are just staying with you?

Williams: The chemicals that we tested for were detectable in urine. And those chemicals actually do not bioaccumulate. Our bodies metabolize them pretty quickly, like in a 24-hour cycle. We did that because they’re cheaper to test for. The chemicals that bioaccumulate in fat you have to test by testing blood or breast milk. I tested myself, but not my daughter, for flame retardants and some pesticides.

I tested my breast milk when I was still breastfeeding my daughter, so that was a number of years earlier. I found that, again, I had above-average levels of flame retardants, which at the time were very, very pervasive in American consumer products. They’ve actually since been largely removed, or are in the process of being removed, from upholstered furnishings, for example, because of consumer concern and California being proactive about changing their flammability standards.

van Gelder: So you didn’t know why you had above-average ratings?

Williams: No, I really didn’t. I tried to find out where these flame retardants were coming from. Flame retardants have a signature sort of fingerprint, so you can tell by the molecular structure what kind of products they tend to be in. I had particularly high levels of flame retardants that are common in upholstered furnishings and also in consumer electronics, like computers. So we think that’s where most of them came from.

van Gelder: What was it like for you when you realized that your breast milk that you were feeding to your babies contained these substances?

Williams: Well, it was a big question mark for me. I realized that we don’t know all that much about what they do to our health. There’s been a lot of research since then, and what we’re learning is not reassuring: These flame retardants, especially, tend to interfere with the thyroid hormone and thyroid hormone signaling. And of course, the thyroid hormone regulates all sorts of critical bodily functions, from metabolism to brain and neurodevelopment. What’s encouraging is that when the marketplace changes, our bodies, pretty quickly, reflect those changes. So breast-milk levels of flame retardants are dropping quickly. When we change policy, we can really change our bodies. That’s empowering and important to know.

van Gelder: You write in your book about men who end up having breast cancer because of environmental contamination. Are male breasts also so sensitive to the environment?

Williams: For a long time we didn’t know the causes of cancer in general or of breast cancer. Women’s breasts are governed by these monthly cycles, they’re governed by pregnancy, and they’re governed by menopause. So when women get breast cancer, it’s hard to tease out what’s going on. But when men get breast cancer, it’s a much clearer picture for scientists. When a cluster started emerging on the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base, epidemiologists were quickly fascinated. If the men were getting cancer, it probably wouldn’t be so hormonally mediated. So there might be a clear link to the chemicals.

The men getting breast cancer who lived on Camp Lejeune seem to have been exposed to a number of carcinogenic chemicals. And the men were unusually young when they were getting the cancers — in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. The average age for men to get breast cancer, which is still quite a rare disease in men, is about 70.

van Gelder: Are there signs that greater awareness about breast health is taking hold? What’s the most promising response you’re seeing?

Williams: Women are talking more openly about protecting the right to breastfeed in public. Celebrities like Beyoncé are modeling breastfeeding, and Angelina Jolie is increasing awareness of genetic vulnerabilities. I wish we’d talk more about body image and social pressures for young girls, who today grow up expecting and wanting their breasts to look a certain way, and this in turn is feeding the plastic surgery beast. I’m hopeful, though, that this and other conversations are ripe to happen soon.

Sarah van Gelder

Sarah van Gelder is co-founder of YES! Magazine. Follow the Edge of Change Road Trip here, and connect with Sarah on Twitter @sarahvangelder.

Who Lives Longest — and Why?Despite their economic situation, Hispanics tend to live longer than any other demographic in the country

Celia Aguilar visits with her mother and grandmother in El Paso, Texas. Aguilar’s mother practiced the tradition of cuarentena, where the mother rests for 40 days while relatives or friends cook and run the household. Aguilar plans to do the same when she has her own children.

Celia Aguilar visits with her mother and grandmother in El Paso, Texas. Aguilar’s mother practiced the tradition of cuarentena, where the mother rests for 40 days while relatives or friends cook and run the household. Aguilar plans to do the same when she has her own children. YES! Photos by Acavius Largo

Celia Aguilar wears a long, loosely fitted white dress with touches of red embroidery and red bandanas tied around her head and waist. The 29-year-old Chicana dances alongside men wearing large, feathered headdresses, the seashells on their ankles rattling. Here in El Paso, Texas, they gather in a ritual of Danza Azteca, an Aztec dance preserved in Mexican culture.

Aguilar, a daughter of Mexican immigrants, dances to honor health and culture.

Jasmine Aguilera

Jasmine Aguilera is a Social Justice Reporting Fellow at YES! and a multimedia and enterprise reporter from El Paso, Texas. She often reports about minority and LGBT communities, including issues with immigration, poverty, and racism.

“For me it is a form of spiritual healing,” she says. “A way to connect with my indigenous roots as well as preserve ancient traditions. It’s a form of prayer and ceremony that really helps me cope with all of the things that I face in my life.”

Author Claudia Kolker took a closer look at such cultural practices for her 2011 book, The Immigrant Advantage. Her book examines why immigrants are often healthier than native-born Americans — a question that continues to be explored. Some credit this perplexing phenomenon to the idea that immigrants must be healthy to migrate. Kolker’s research shows its connection to customs like Danza Azteca: close community bonds, traditional foods, and la cuarentena, a Latin American tradition in which a new mother rests for the first 40 days after giving birth, not lifting a finger except to breastfeed and bond with her child. Kolker also has a hunch that a lack of smoking is a factor, and other researchers agree.

But these findings not only show an immigrant advantage; they present a paradox, too.

Recently arrived immigrants, especially Hispanics, experience nearly double the poverty rate of the U.S.-born population. Despite their economic situation and lack of health insurance, Hispanics tend to live longer than both black and white males and females: about three years more than whites and six years more than blacks. However, they still have higher death rates when it comes to diabetes, cirrhosis, and hypertension.

Aguilar’s mother and grandmother, who are from rural Mexico, have developed diabetes and hypertension, diseases Aguilar is sure their change in diets caused. “Right now we’re all pretty much eating the same crap,” she says. “It’s cheap, and it’s fast.”

Kolker says immigrants who are not used to consuming so much fast or processed food have an upper hand when they arrive in the United States because their dishes are usually made up of more natural, healthier ingredients. Maintaining that diet once in the United States takes commitment.

The Latino Paradox

Despite nearly a quarter of their population living in poverty, Latinos have higher average life expectancies than white Americans, who have a much lower poverty rate.

Latin Paradox graph

As for Aguilar, she strives to stay in touch with her roots. She has worked at a local restaurant that serves traditional Mexican food, and she’s a firm believer in the medicinal practices of her mother and grandmother. Yet she realizes that it isn’t easy for her family — and those who follow — to keep that culture alive. As generations become more Americanized, their health begins to decline.

U.S.-born Hispanics face higher prevalence rates for unhealthy behaviors than foreign-born Hispanics: a 72 percent higher smoking rate and a 30 percent higher obesity rate. They also have a 93 percent higher cancer rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Timothy Smith, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University, also has studied this scientific wonder and suggests that social bonds and culture do contribute to health. While more research is needed to know for sure, one thing is certain: American assimilation isn’t exactly healthy. “They’re adopting the local culture, which does have some adverse consequences,” he says. “There are positive consequences to health and adverse consequences.”

Regardless, Hispanic customs hold some value — and leave a lesson to be learned.


One tradition seen in Latin American cultures, but rarely in Western cultures, is cuarentena, meaning “quarantine.” During this tradition, the new mother rests for up to 40 days and bonds with her child while relatives or friends handle all the cooking and household needs. Traditionally, someone even helps teach the mother how to breastfeed effectively.

In her book, Kolker describes cuarentena as a tremendous health benefit for both mother and child. The mothers are never alone and are fed healthy food; the babies can nurse whenever they want.

This luxury is nearly impossible in the United States, where there is no federally mandated paid family leave. Plus, being overworked is almost a sign of success here, Kolker says. “It’s ironic that we are a richer country, but it’s harder to organize a cuarentena.”

Aguilar’s mother practiced cuarentena for her five children, including Aguilar. Aguilar plans to do the same when she has her own children — she wants everything to be as natural as possible. She believes that, in the United States, pregnancy is treated as a disease rather than a spiritual process. Too many doctors, too many medications.

“There are certain things that are just passed down generationally without any kind of effort,” she says, “and I’d like to continue that tradition of healing and self-care.”


Aguilar learned the value of self-care through food when she worked at Café Mayapan, a Mexican restaurant in downtown El Paso. It sources some of its ingredients from a community farm, aiming eventually to source all of them from the farm. Women of all generations run the farm and restaurant, along with a daycare center, as part of La Mujer Obrera, or “The Working Woman,” an organization dedicated to building a strong community based on Chicano heritage.

“Our philosophy is that the more we go back to our traditions, the healthier we’ll be,” says Lorena Andrade, director of La Mujer Obrera.

Andrade was the first of her family to be born north of the border. As a girl, she translated labels at the grocery store for her mother, who would buy only the items that matched as closely as possible to what she used in her native Jalisco, Mexico, to cook caldo de pollo (chicken soup), chile colorado con nopales (red chile over cactus), beans, squash, and tortillas — all served at Café Mayapan today.

For Andrade, traditional cooking is a form of resistance: a way to preserve a culture that is hundreds of years old, a culture easily lost in a new place. It is a way to reject the status quo that glorifies processed foods.

“When we cross the border, we lose our sense of community and our connection to the land, verdad?” Andrade says. “We start to think that in order to be healthy, we have to look externally, when really all we have to do is look into our culture.”

Family & Community

This same philosophy of looking inside translates into Rayito Del Sol Daycare & Learning Center, the daycare beneath Andrade’s La Mujer Obrera umbrella. There, female community members teach reading, math, history, and science to about 35 children, infants to 8-year-olds. The women look to each other to help raise their children, working hard to develop a sense of community in El Paso, where more than 80 percent of the population is Hispanic.

“Sometimes our culture is narrowed down to just folklorico,” Andrade says. “We need more than that. We need the math and the subjects that’ll strengthen us. And as a strong community, we eat together, we cook together and live together, and that’s how we become healthier.”

It’s not uncommon in Latino families for three or four generations of relatives to live under one roof. This close family dynamic and sense of community contributes to the overall health of each member, Kolker says.

“When your cousin is sick, you know, and you go out of your way to help,” Kolker says. “When each member of the family is involved in the health and needs of the other, everyone is healthier.”

Even though most of Andrade’s family is in California, her Mexican culture is a crucial part of her life. She cooks every day, using whatever the garden has to offer. Andrade even makes atole, a warm beverage popular in Mexico and Central America that’s made with corn, water, cinnamon, and sometimes chocolate. “It tastes better at my mom’s house, but at least I’m trying,” she jokes.

Though she often wishes she were drinking her mother’s atole, Andrade feels pride in making her own. It’s little practices like this that help keep her culture alive. And they might just be what keep this paradox very much alive, too

Yessenia Funes contributed reporting to this article.

Jasmine Aguilera

Jasmine Aguilera is a social justice correspondent at YES! She often reports about minority and LGBT communities, covering immigration, poverty, and racism.

The Healing Power of a CanoeTribes' traditions are keeping their youth drug-free

Canoe entering bay

YES! Photos by Paul Dunn

Vincent and Sequoia Chargualaf stand on the rocky shore of Port Madison Bay, Washington, welcoming canoe paddlers as their Suquamish ancestors had done for generations. In honor of that history, today’s Pacific Northwest Natives climb in their canoes and paddle for the annual Tribal Canoe Journey, a drug- and alcohol-free event where tribes gather and share their cultures. This year, the Suquamish are hosting visitors for a night, welcoming them with a steady drumbeat and a hint of steaming crab in the air.

Yessenia Funes

Yessenia Funes is an assistant editor at YES! A New York native, she covers inequality, poverty, and climate justice. Follow her on Twitter @yessfun.

The canoe journey represents adaptability and reliability, traits necessary inside and outside of the canoe, especially for the many Native youth who struggle with substance abuse. Twenty-year-old Vincent learned these lessons five years ago when he took a class that included the journey’s metaphorical teachings. The class was part of the Healing of the Canoe project, a collaboration between the Suquamish Tribe, the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, and the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute. It aims to build resilient, substance-free Native youth by reconnecting them to their roots.

“You never know what’s going to come up when you’re on the journey,” Vincent says. “There’s going to be times when you’re in the canoe and there’s rough waves or calm water. You just have to be able to adapt to any situation you’re put in, and you have to be able to do it with the help of everyone else.”

Vincent and 16-year-old Sequoia both learned through the class how to apply this philosophy to life. The Healing of the Canoe’s yearlong curriculum is broken up into 11 sessions. Each teaches different cultural values and life skills, while sprinkling in drug and alcohol information. At the end of the year, students participate in an honoring ceremony that acknowledges their accomplishments.

Vincent and Sequoia Chargualaf, at right, wait on the shore for arriving canoes from neighboring tribes.

Vincent and Sequoia Chargualaf, at right, wait on the shore for arriving canoes from neighboring tribes.

The project has expanded to about 35 tribes — some as far as Canada and Alaska — that learn implementation through workshops, social media, and online trainings. Tribal members hope such involvement will deter youth from experimenting with drugs, a health issue especially prevalent among Native adolescents. A study recently published in Public Health Reports found that 56 percent of eighth graders in American Indian populations surveyed used marijuana — four times higher than the national rate. Use of psychedelics was five times higher.

Drugs take over youth’s lives, says Laura Price, the Healing of the Canoe project manager for the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe. “They change the child, and that’s really scary.”

This didn’t just happen. For decades, the U.S. government forced Native people to assimilate into American society. The trauma of this cultural stripping continues to bleed into today’s generations, encouraging destructive behavior, hurting health, and contributing to mental illness. Reversing that trauma isn’t easy, but tribes believe that bringing ancestral values directly to the youth is the answer.

A study of the Healing of the Canoe’s impact, published in early 2015, showed substance use decreased, while hope, optimism, and self-efficacy increased among the 27 participants. Tribal members involved in the study requested these variables be examined, and results were garnered from a questionnaire given before and after the curriculum. The project’s goal is not only to reduce harm among youth, Price says, but also to get them “feeling good and proud about who they are and where they come from.”

Take the Chargualaf brothers, Vincent and Sequoia, for example. They explain how their single mother never had time to bring their family to cultural events that were often too far out of the way. The Healing of the Canoe project brought the cultural teachings to them — teachings that encouraged the brothers to go beyond class requirements and paddle in the annual canoe journey.

In the class, Vincent learned how to sing, dance, and weave. “I’m not so much a carver,” he says, “but whatever anybody needs help with, that’s just where I am.”

Sequoia was crowned as last year’s Chief Seattle Days Warrior in the Royalty Pageant, part of a three-day public festival established in 1911 to honor the famous Suquamish leader, Chief Seattle. Royalty give a voice to youth and represent their significant role within the tribe. Sequoia has found honor standing among leaders. “If I’m next to the right people, and good people,” he says, “then I can help others stay drug and alcohol free.” Plus, tribal stories tell of bad karma catching up to royalty who use substances. He doesn’t want any future bad luck.

Real life is as unpredictable as the canoe journey, but a strong community can provide the support to pull through hardships like addiction. “Healing of the Canoe is just teaching us it’s OK to ask for help,” Vincent explains. “It’s OK to feel weak sometimes. It’s OK to not be the strongest person in the world.”

Strength comes in many forms. For some, it’s paddling 24 hours in a canoe. For others, it’s carrying that canoe to shore. For the Suquamish, it’s all of the above, plus finding the answers that will keep their kids well and their culture alive.

Yessenia Funes

Yessenia Funes is an assistant editor at YES! A New York native, she covers inequality, poverty, and climate justice. Follow her on Twitter @yessfun.

Tribal Canoe Journey YES! photos by Paul Dunn of the 2015 journey where Pacific Northwest tribes paddled to Suquamish land

A tribe lands on the Port Madison, Washington, shore.
A Pacific Northwest tribe prepares to land on shore.
Suquamish girls play on the rocky shore.
A Suquamish toddler sits, flashing her royalty slash.
Members of different tribes help carry a canoe toward the longhouse.
Members of different tribes prepare to bring the canoe to shore.
The Chargualaf brothers, Vincent and Sequoia, chant Native songs as canoes approach.