Speaking from the Body: Latinas on Health and Culture
Edited by Angie Chabram-Dernersesian and Adela de la Torre. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, December 2008. Paper: ISBN 978-0-8165-2664-2, $24.95. 264 pages.
Review by Donna Shelton, Northeastern State University
Among Latinos of Mexican and Central American descent, plática is a colloquialism for a conversation between friends or family members. However, the literal meaning of the word does not convey its profound significance for female participants in a culture that highly values interpersonal relationships. Reading the narratives of Speaking from the Body: Latinas on Health and Culture is like pulling up a chair at the kitchen table and listening as your sister, mother, and best friend share their personal struggles with illness and healing. The coeditors, Adela de la Torre and Angie Chabram-Dernersesian, are professors in the Chicana/o studies program at the University of California at Davis. Chabram-Dernersesian specializes in cultural studies and Chicana feminism, and she is the editor of The Chicana/o Cultural Studies Reader (2006). De la Torre is a health-policy researcher who directs both the Chicana/o studies program at Davis and the Center of Public Policy, Race, Ethnicity, and Gender. De la Torre and Chabram-Dernersesian created this anthology to address a need that became apparent during the course of their own conversations about the health of their aging mothers.
As noted in Chabram-Dernersesian’s introduction, the anthology attempts to bridge the seemingly disparate disciplines of Latina/o culture and health care in order to liberate Latina narratives of illness from the restrictions of established medical discourse. The twelve chapters that follow the introduction were contributed by Latinas who have experienced illness in their own lives or in the lives of female friends and family members. They share stories of dementia, arthritis, hyper/hypothyroidism, obesity, lupus, Parkinson’s disease, hypertension, and diabetes, and they expose the effect illness has on their ability to meet their professional and family obligations, on their emotional wellbeing, and on their concept of self. They describe seeking Western medical care as well as traditional Latina forms of solace and healing such as the plática. The narratives themselves are the public counterparts of these intimate conversations and are another form of the therapeutic speech that the editors see as an essential healing strategy in Latina/o culture (163). Following the narratives are not one but two conclusions. The first, on which the coeditors collaborated, clearly identifies and analyzes the common themes of the narratives, dedicating sections to the relationship between illness and work, genetic predispositions to disease, conventional and alternative treatment options, the importance of community, and identity formation. In the second conclusion, de la Torre provides a well-structured overview of the major medical problems faced by Latinas based on data from government sources and academic and medical studies, and she also examines Latina access to health care.
The anthology’s greatest strengths are its transdisciplinary format and the emotional power of the narratives. De la Torre and Chabram-Dernersesian describe medical discourse in the US as emphasizing very controlled forms of communication between the health care practitioner and the individual patient and also between the practitioner and the medical community as a whole (11). This discourse focuses on the physical aspects of illness only and disregards its impact on relationships and identity. The narratives give voice to the Latina’s full experience of illness, treatment, and healing, and they express emotions that range from anguish to rebellion to dark humor. At the same time, the volume also provides the empirical data necessary for an objective understanding of the health care issues of Latinas living in the US.
The reader should be aware of certain, perhaps unavoidable, limitations of perspective that arise from the identity of the narrators of the volume’s chapters. Chabram-Dernersesian and de la Torre do not describe how they chose the contributors to the anthology; the introduction mentions only that they invited Latinas going through an illness experience to write without specific guidelines or censorship from the editors (7). The volume includes professional profiles of all of the contributors who did not write anonymously. Of the twelve narratives, ten (including one by de la Torre herself) were written by academics or medical professionals, some of whom work in the California university system that employs the editors. De la Torre and Chabram-Dernersesian point out that most of the contributors are from working-class backgrounds and are immigrants or first- or second-generation residents of the US (10). The narratives demonstrate that the women do indeed seek out the systems of care available to them through Latina/o culture as healing strategies. However, their evident level of education and their socioeconomic status imply an enhanced ability to navigate the healthcare system and act as their own advocates compared to that of Latinas without these advantages, which suggests that their illness experiences may not be representative of the experiences of all Latinas.
Another consideration is the use of the term Latina. As Chabram-Dernersesian comments in the introduction: “We adopt the designation Latinas as a way to highlight pan-ethnic solidarity—here, meaning a strategic set of health alliances among underrepresented Latinas” (12). The adjectives Latino and Latina are generally used to refer to individuals of Latin American background, without specifying a particular country of origin. However, in this anthology, with one exception, all the contributors are Mexican-American or Mexican (12). Latinas from other Spanish-speaking countries do not necessarily perceive illness and health in the same manner as Mexican-Americans.
These limitations do not detract from the deeply moving voices of the Latinas who speak to the reader through the extended plática of these narratives. Speaking from the Body is an anthology of considerable significance for anyone interested in Latina/o or Chicana/o studies or gender studies and for health care practitioners or social service personnel who want to communicate and provide treatment in a culturally sensitive manner.