There are many things that make the Rio Grande Valley special including the people, culture and history. In particular, I found that the diversity in my surrounding environments most intriguing. Within one week, I found myself in rural, urban and tourist environments, and each was different in the people who lived there and their circumstances. For the majority of the week, my team spent our time in more urban environments conducting surveys. The people in these areas, such as in McAllen, suffer from nutrition related morbidities such as diabetes and obesity because of the lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Part of our survey involved asking the community whether they are interested in participating in a community garden. After talking with a few people not related to the study, we found that the people know that their diet is not healthy but they also recognize that their surrounding environment limits them. In a city where fast food restaurants are on every corner, how can someone make a conscious effort to consume fresh vegetables when they are harder to come across or more expensive to buy? Although a lot of participants purchase their produce in supermarkets, being of an agricultural culture, they want to grow their own food.
In contrast, in more rural environments, I saw a lot of commercial farming. While on a tour, we were told that usually the farm workers lived on the property and were allowed to grow and harvest their own produce on a small plot. You would think that they have the perfect situation because they can grow their own fresh produce, but they have different circumstances in that they have little to no access to healthcare. On Thursday, my group traveled to the border and as we drove I realized that within McAllen there are is an abundance of healthcare clinics, but as you travel to places like Progresso, TX, it was rare to see any health clinics. It got me wondering, what exactly do these people when they get sick? Do they make the hour drive to a more urban area to get health services? When comparing the two environments, dualities in disparities can be seen. What one environment lacks, the other has in abundance. The saying, “The grass is always greener on the other side, “ comes to mind because those living in the more urban setting would think that the rural environment is better because of their access to fresh produce and as a result, a healthier diet, however those in a rural environment could look at the urban and say that because they have access to healthcare, they have it better. Although both are valid arguments, neither community should have to sacrifice on either, because access to healthcare and healthier foods should be inherent in any living environment.
In complete contrast to both urban and rural, I found myself in a tourist environment while visiting South Padre Island. What struck me first was that the demographics of the area differed significantly from the demographics of more urban and rural regions of Hidalgo County. Once in South Padre Island, I only saw “Winter Texans”, which are people who come to live in Texas during the winter months. In other words, it was very hard to find a Mexican or Mexican American in the tourist environment. But what struck me most about South Padre Island was the fact that while you are there, you can be mislead to thinking that this island represents what Rio Grande Valley is truly like. It was almost like being in a bubble. While driving past the tourist shops, nice restaurants and beautiful beaches, you tend to forget about all of the disparities that you left behind in McAllen. This is unfortunate because those who visit South Padre and do not venture over that pearly white bridge are unaware of the health problems that exist in as little as 5 miles away. Although the tourist environment provides its patrons with proper food sources and healthcare, I believe they are blind to the disparities surrounding them and as a result are at just as much of a detriment as those in both urban and rural environments suffering from lack of a proper diet and lack of access to healthcare.
Although each environment differs in demographic composition and circumstances, the way in which all three are related is that each is afflicted with problems. As public health professionals, it is our job to see the big picture and do what we can to alleviate disparities to improve health. We would be remiss if we addressed each environment in isolation, as that would only put a Band-Aid on the problem. Part of public health is identifying which problems exist and deciphering the underlying theme, and then changing policies to address that theme. My father, who is also in pubic health, has been telling me this for years, but it was not until I actually witnessed this in Texas, that it is starting to make sense. For this reason, this trip was not only eye-opening, it strengthened my foundation in public health and further enriched my development into a future public health professional.