Study shows local Hispanic population at greater risk
By Emily Bland and Derrick Toledo
When Alicia Chavez goes jogging through the South Valley Bosque in the morning, she is engulfed by a sickening chemical smell.
“There are three big pipes north of César Chavez road that pour water and trash into the South Valley Bosque,” says Chavez.
“People say, ‘Don’t swim there. There’s chemicals there. There’s dead bodies there,’” she half jokes. “I hope it’s rain water but it hasn’t rained in forever and the pipes are still running.”
Because of where she lives, Chavez and her South Valley neighbors are at risk of lifespans shorter than other Albuquerque residents.
A new initiative shows residents of Albuquerque’s South Valley die on average 22 years sooner than people in the North Valley.
Environmental dangers are only one part of the picture.
Other factors include inadequate schools, poor housing, insufficient transportation and lack of safety
The Place Matters Initiative
Such disparity in local effects on people’s health is getting increased attention as part of a growing national initiative, Place Matters, sponsored by the non-profit research and advocacy group The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. The Joint Center has teams based in New Mexico and produced the 2012 report, “Place Matters For Health In Bernalillo County: Ensuring Opportunities for Good Health for All.”
The report found the areas with the lowest life expectancy, 66-70 years, are in downtown Albuquerque and in the South Valley. The areas with highest life expectancy, 85-94 years, are the Far Northeast Heights, Four Hills and the North Valley. The university area and the Northeast Heights reveal life expectancies in-between the others.
South Valley resident Francine Pacheco, a single mom and a student of economics, says the health problems in the south indicate a lack of services. “There is a considerable amount of aging population in the South Valley,” she says, and “that is a major contributing factor due to lack of access to healthcare for the elderly.”
“If you see such a significant variance in life expectancy, it’s hard to deny that there’s something going on.”
Democratic senator Jacob Candelaria represents the 26th district of New Mexico.
“I loved growing up in the South Valley. I felt safe and part of something,” he says.
Candelaria says he is aware of the high difference in life expectancy.
“It’s striking. If you see such a significant variance in life expectancy it’s hard to deny that there’s something going on,” he says.
The local Place Matters report says neighborhood conditions powerfully predict who is healthy, who is sick and who lives longer.
To research the gap, the Joint Center designed the ‘community risk index’ that consists of
- Average educational attainment
- Average standardized test scores
- Violent crime rates
- Home foreclosure rates
- Unemployment rates
- Vacant housing
- Households with no automobiles
- Percentage of overcrowded households
Neighborhoods with a lower life expectancy are characterized by inadequate schools, poor housing, polluted environments, insufficient transportation and lack of safety.
“The life expectancy gap seems immense but I’m not surprised, sadly,” says Katrina Nicole, student of economy of race and gender at UNM.
A Correlation with Heritage
The Joint Center says that neighborhoods with a low life expectancy have a larger percentage of low-income, immigrant and Hispanic families.
South Valley and Downtown have an up to 90% Hispanic majority, whereas the Far Northeast Heights and Four Hills are 75% white.
Residents Defend Their Neighborhoods
Businessman Benjamin Garcia lives in North Valley with his wife and three kids. He says, “I love the North Valley. I don’t see myself moving anytime soon.”
But such sentiment is not unique to the prosperous zip codes.
South Valley resident Adriann Barboa says, “I don’t even lock my doors and never have. People really seem to look out for each other here. I’ve seen more crime living in the university area.”
Pacheco agrees, “There is no more violence in the South Valley than in the North Valley. That is a terrible stereotype that has been portrayed.”
It Starts Early
The Joint Center research also found a wide difference in community risk index between census tracts, together with a 12-fold difference in the percentage of low birth-weight infants and concentrations of environmental health hazards.
Ashley Angelina is a preterm infants nurse at UNM Hospital. She says “preemies suffer from a variety of diagnoses, one of which is low birth weight. I would say a major contributor to this diagnosis is a lack of access to healthcare… also drug use, improper nutrition and (lack of) education of the expectant mother. These contributors tend to be more prominent in lower socio- economic areas.”
Policy At Play
Senator Candelaria says that an immediate change can be made by expanding Medicaid,
“although the state has not done a good job to actually ramp up the Medicaid expansion.”
“I think as a senator I can have the greatest leverage by getting people enrolled in health care,” he says.
Candelaria says that environmental contamination is an issue that has to stay at the forefront. “The federal government has been putting a lot of resources for a long time trying to clean up and control contamination and I think that is going to be an ongoing process.”
“There have been some important proposals in recent years in the legislature to effectively regulate and use common sense, science-based approaches.” However, he says, it will take a long time to make a difference, because of the decades of contamination.
The Joint Center says, “we need to tackle the structures and systems that create and perpetuate inequality to fully close racial and ethnic health gaps”.
South Valley resident Alicia Chavez enjoys jogging along the river, but she doesn’t always like what she sees.
“In the Bosque south of César Chavez there’s a place people call the glass graveyard,” she says.
“In the fifties glass was disposed there, now it’s just an open field of acres of broken glass.”
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Emily Bland is British-German Multimedia Journalism student at UNM, passionate about traveling and international news.
Derrick Toledo is a journalism student at UNM with a passion for writing and a strong desire to help create positive change in the world.