San Francisco is much more aware of its large Indígena population, in large part, because of Dr. Alberto Perez. In a full and loud operatic voice, Pa’delante shares some of it with you some of this unsung hero’s story and work for Latino Heritage Month.
Alberto was born in Mexico City, and is the sixth of ten children. While his family had financial difficulties, higher education was free in Mexico at that time (note to US government: Mexico can do it but we restrict education to students and then saddle them with years of debt?), so Alberto followed in his older siblings’ footsteps. Becoming a doctor, Alberto worked as a primary practitioner in Quintana Roo. While he provided much needed medical care to the Indígena community, he notes that he learned a lot from them by just listening to their stories and struggles.
Increasingly, Alberto was drawn to the field of public health and community health. In Mexico, the concept of public health was more prescribed while he saw it evolving in the United States. He came to the US in 2001 to attend the public health program at San Francisco State. What originally was intended to be a short-term educational pursuit turned into a 20-year project.
Little by little, Alberto began to realize there was a large Mayan community in San Francisco. He’d see, for example, that check cashing businesses would offer to let people wire money to areas in the Yucatan. Eager to connect with them to hear about their families and culture, he was quickly enlisted as an advocate for the Indígena.
With other community leaders, Alberto founded Asociación Mayab in 2003. Initially, they only intended to teach a jarana dance class and a Mayan language class. That quickly evolved as more people came, bringing new ideas to participate in Carnaval and organize traditional events. With Alberto’s guidance, they did both of those things, including organizing their first vaqueria at IFR. Expecting to reach 40-60 people, over 200 people attended the vaqueria.
Mayab participants began identifying other needs: housing, how to avoid eviction, how to navigate when someone passed away, etc. Alberto was at the center of helping Mayab bring support services to the Indígena community. Like any good leader, Alberto doesn’t take credit for the level of effort, engagement, and commitment he gave. Incredibly humble, Pa’delante was finally able to get Alberto to say he is proud of the resources he was able to bring to Mayab.
“I am also very proud of serving hundreds of families and supporting them in times of need with information, referrals and resources. I really love having been instrumental in training and mentoring dozens promoters de salud in San Francisco and San Mateo County and close to 60 Maya Language interpreters over the years. The Maya Interpreters program is, in great part, my creation as well as the Indigena Health and Wellness Collaborative.”
When asked about why cultura is important, Alberto doesn’t have to give it a second thought. “It is the glue that brings us together. It’s how I know I belong to the group, that I am connected to a people and place. We’re connected by language, stories, dance, clothing, and a set of values and events that are culturally relatable to us.”
In fact, this is one of the many reasons Alberto is this week’s unsung hero. The focus on western thinking tends to omit or ignore traditional peoples and healing. “No one knew about us before, what languages were spoken, what our community was about, who we are, or why we’re different.” While Alberto didn’t do it alone, he was a central figure in raising the profile of the Indígena in San Francisco. We are all richer for it.
Today, Alberto identifies his lifelong mission to bring back traditional wisdom and practices. “We have this knowledge that I want to make sure is passed on to the next generation, to share with them all the things that make us who we are.”
When you are walking a path others haven’t walked before, that is commitment, conviction, and vision. That is what Alberto has done throughout his life. For these qualities and for his life’s work, we recognize and celebrate the unique and treasured work of Dr. Alberto Perez.