Techos De Cristal
Breaking Glass Ceilings as a “Latina in Medicina”
A defining moment of my childhood was when my Cuban-born “Papi” recommended that I choose medicine “so I would never have to financially depend on a man” (I was then a naïve career-planning 2nd grader torn between a “well-paying” career as a pediatrician (HaHa!--joke is on me!) vs. becoming a teacher with summers off and lots of free time for my future children.
Even as a child I recognized my father’s counsel to be very powerful yet dichotomous advice. I was used to watching “I Love Lucy” on television and knew that my father was his own special brand of “Ricky Ricardo” -- charming, but somewhat culturally bred to be chauvinistic. Yet. . . he wanted for me, his first-born daughter, to have a career that would never leave me wanting or needing a man for support. He was an early feminist of sorts, but one who also revels -- even to this day (he just turned 85) -- in being awkwardly and inappropriately flirtatious around pretty women. He has always been a “womanizer” who is “a lot of talk” and no action.
He had two very strong sisters (my aunts) who were trail-blazers and role models for me. His oldest sister, Ana Maria, who we all called “Tia China” qualified for the Cuban Women’s Olympic Basketball team as a college student. She went on to study chemistry and later become a college professor. His other sister, Miriam (who raised me as her own daughter) worked at a Cuban law firm as a paralegal before coming to the United States, and then went on to become a teacher at our elementary school. Both aunts eventually married and raised families, staying at home when we children were young.
I did not have that luxury as a woman in medicine. While my high school and college friends were getting married and starting their families, I spent my 20’s and 30’s studying hard, working long shifts, and barely meeting anyone outside of medicine. I had very little time left for dating. In my mind I had very high standards for who I wanted as a life-partner, and was very suspicious of anyone who DID want to date me. I also had a very unfortunate knack for choosing poorly in my younger days. I went from almost marrying a cardiac surgeon who (unlike my dad was more action than talk in his womanizing ways) to becoming engaged to a nearly homeless recovering alcoholic Harley-Davidson aficionado. I recognize now that low self-esteem and “settling” were strong motivators for my poor choices.
It was emotionally very difficult to be a pediatrician to everyone else’s children, suspecting that I, myself, would never be
able to fulfill my lifelong dream of becoming a wife and mother. Very few men seemed interested in dating female medical students or doctors, and I felt that being Latina was an added burden. I dreaded the label “solterona” (Spanish for an older unmarried woman or “Old Maid”).
Lady physicians often complain that patients and staff frequently mistake them for nurses, even when they introduce themselves as “doctor.” My brown skin, my large derriere, and my ability to speak fluent Spanish often led patients and staff members to mistake me for a hospital cleaning lady, cafeteria worker, or an orderly. I sometimes used this familiarity to my advantage, and although discriminatory, I was often much better able to connect with families and patients who could not possibly imagine that I was “THE” doctor.
A few years ago I read an article about Chelsea Batista1, a Dominican medical student who, like me, was accepted to almost every medical school to which she had applied. Naysayers attributed both of our success to “affirmative action” programs, but she made a powerful statement to which I can relate:
“At some points, I had to remind myself that I earned these accomplishments. That I worked just as hard as those around me and that I had to break through a prominent glass ceiling to get here. I had to remind myself that I was not chosen because I am a Hispanic woman who fulfills the requirements. I was chosen because as a Hispanic woman, I had to struggle through more obstacles and resistance than the typical medical school applicant and I still managed to excel.”
I eventually did meet and marry my “Prince Charming,” when I was almost 35, introduced by his 3 year old niece Ryan, who was one of my first pediatric patients when I started in private practice. Together, we fulfilled my life-long dream of becoming a mother to our wonderful daughter, Madison, on my 37th birthday. Jim and I recently celebrated our 22nd wedding anniversary.
Dreams DO come true, and glass ceilings are meant to be broken.