Aging Between Two Worlds: Hispanic Elders Thrive on Faith, Optimism, Tradition

Aging Between Two Worlds: Hispanic Elders Thrive on Faith, Optimism, Tradition

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Photo: Loida Medellin (HuffPost Voces/ Yolanda Gonzalez Gomez)

Part 2. Read Part 1 here. Also available in Spanish.

DALLAS, Texas--"Lord, give me the strength of the buffalo, and make me like the eagle," is one of the petitions that makes Loida Medellin fervently pray to God every morning. At age 75, Medellin is originally from Toluca in Mexico, and she calls herself a worshiper of God and Jesus Christ. She says faith is what frees her of any disease and provides all her material and emotional needs. "It is a must for me to pray to thank the almighty and for my family, as soon as I wake up," said Medellin, who provides daycare for her three-year-old great-granddaughter, Sophia at her apartment.

Optimism and Wit

It was his optimisim that brought Jacinto Barrera to the United States from Rio Verde, San Luis Potosi, in central Mexico, more than 40 years ago.

Soon he will turn 65, but he is not even remotely thinking about retiring early from his swimming-pool remodeling business. Instead, he recently purchased several acres of land to found a company that sells trees. "I'm very ambitious and feel very healthy. I plan to continue to work, hoping that I will contribute to the best life for my grandchildren," Barrera said.

Barrera, who benefited from the 1986 immigration amnesty and is now a U.S. citizen, attributed his surviving the physically heavy—even dangerous work he once did to the positive working attitude he learned in Mexico.

"What makes us work in the cold, in the rain or in the heights? It does not matter nor affect me nor dominate me; I keep being very optimistic, very positive," he stated.

His only regret is that he was not present to enjoy the last years of his parents’ lives, but he found consolation in the economic help he could send them in monthly remittances.

He lamented, though, "My physical absence of not seeing my parents for years left a hole in me." Barrera has been married 35 years and has two adult children—one a teacher, the other an accountant. And he has four grandchildren.

Mexico Over Medicare

Barrera, who will soon be eligible for Medicare, has had no medical insurance in the United States. But he said he is not afraid. Although he has suffered from diabetes and severe allergies for many years, he has been reluctant to participate in what he calls "the exploitation business of health that does not heal." Whenever he needs medical care, he prefers to traveling to Mexico.

"Since I emigrated from San Luis Potosi, I’ve suffered from allergies that would never heal in this country. But one day I went to Nuevo Laredo on the border, and there the doctors found a remedy for my condition,” he explained.
 He continiued, “Now I travel to my village in Rio Verde and seek consultation with a primary care physician at very low cost, and I can take a flight in the morning and return the same day.”

Barrera said he controls his allergies with medical treatment from Mexican doctors and his diabetes with diet and exercise. Although he said he may use Medicare coverage for emergencies, he plans to continue visiting Mexico to receive the care he trusts.

--Yolanda Gonzalez Gomez

Medellin, who immigrated to the United States 12 years ago, also said she is convinced God brought her to this country as a blessing. Six of her eight children live here, as do most of her 24 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. She prays for all of them every day.

Prayers for Grandchildren, Great-Grandchildren

According to AARP’s 2007 study, "Keeping the Faith: Religion and Spirituality among Hispanics over age 40," nine in 10 Latinos in the U.S. pray regularly, and 97 percent say they do so with their family.

For Medellin, her faith was everything during the most difficult time in her life in Mexico, when her husband left her with their eight small children and she pulled herself forward by working as an executive secretary. "The only thing I was left with at the time was a big house, big enough to raise my children," she explained, adding “who never lacked anything.”

Medellin plans to grow old in America—as long as God wills it, she said. Before she came to the U.S., she sold real estate in Mexico, allowing her to afford an apartment in Dallas, where she now lives with her youngest son. "I never thought of moving to this country, but I was increasingly traveling more often to visit my children, until they asked me to stay," she said.

When Medellin is not taking care of her little great-granddaughter, she virtually dedicates all of her free time to Bible study, and to praying and writing religious poems. She also travels when invited to do so, as she did recently, spending two months in California with a granddaughter, who brought another great-grandchild into the world.

Culture, Traditions Positive Factors

Medellin is proud that all of her descendants keep Mexican customs in their lives, such as speaking Spanish, eating Mexican food and celebrating and the value of family. All her grandchildren and great-grandchildren are bilingual, and they still call her "abuelita" instead of "grandma," even though they share American culture.

"Hispanics have practices that preserve us and protect life better. And there is the factor of strength in our people that makes them reach over 80 years old,"said Susan Gonzalez Baker, director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas, Arlington.

According to experts, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the so-called "Hispanic paradox" is a real phenomenon. Statistics show that despite living in difficult socio-economic conditions, Hispanic elders in the U.S. live longer than whites and African Americans.

"However, [greater longevity] is most prominent among the first generation of immigrants that still preserves the lifestyle of their countries, especially Mexicans," Gonzalez Baker said. She stressed that second- and third-generation Hispanics usually lose their family’s traditions and assimilate into American culture. Too many in the U.S. acquire habits that make them develop obesity, along with greater a incidence of heart disease and stroke. "The first generation of immigrants is perceived to be most deeply rooted in customary habits, such as not smoking, drinking less alcohol and maintaining their original diet based on more fresh vegetables, corn tortillas and beans," she said.

Hispanic immigrants often may be healthier than the total U.S. population of the same age and region. Also, Gonzalez Baker said , immigrants tend to develop psychological strength from their struggle to adapt to a new society, a new country and a new set of rules and conditions. Among newer generations of Mexican Americans, though, the Hispanic paradox disappears, said Gonzalez Baker--mainly when the children of immigrants adopt the practices promoted by the corporate messages of this country. She suggested that older immigrants’ mixture of customs, faith, hope and a purpose in life could give them a protective mixture for longer life.

"In practice,” Gonzalez Baker said, “we have found that Mexican immigrants report less physical pain when admitted to hospital and require fewer doses of analgesics for pain. We do not know if they are declaring less pain or if they really feel less pain. We do not know if that is because they have a certain attitude towards pain or is real.”

Gonzalez Baker added, "There are things to learn from the Mexican lifestyle, and maybe it would be good practice to adopt a bicultural system for new generations of Hispanics."

More Optimistic

A study by the Pew Research Center showed that 44 percent of Hispanic immigrants surveyed are more optimistic that the future of their children will be better in this country, compared with only 33 percent of whites and African Americans. But extreme inequality could undermine that positive outlook, said renown gerontologist Steven Austad, interim director of the Barshop Institute for Longevity Studies and Aging Center Health Sciences at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Overall, Texas has the highest number of medically uninsured people in the nation, about 5 million, or 20 percent of the population. Of those, 37 precent are Hispanic. The Texas Medical Association, 80 percent of the state’s uninsured reside in 35 of the 254 counties.

"The difference in life expectancy between two Texas counties like Collin and Anderson can be as large as that between the United States and Bangladesh," Austad said. He emphasized that the U.S. cannot afford two Americas within its borders.

Yolanda Gonzalez Gomez wrote this article for Huffington Posts Huff Voces as part of the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellows program, a project of the Gerontological Society of America and New America Media.