When Sonia Valenzuela* learned that there was a way to get a free mammogram, she did more than jump at the chance. She hectored her mom, her sister and her niece until they agreed to come.
“My friend just learned she has breast cancer,” Valenzuela said through an interpreter. “She knew about the lump and she was afraid she would be deported if she went to oncology. She waited too long.”
Sonia, 41; Angelica, 38; and their mom, Maria, 65, waited patiently for the tests in a North County San Diego church courtyard during a monthly event put on by the Mexican Consulate to serve its citizens. Martha Varela, the consulate’s media and public outreach coordinator, organizes the mobile pop-ups, where attendees can seek documents proving their Mexican citizenship in addition to preventive health care such as mammograms and blood pressure tests.
Varela attends to make sure no one goes without help. “We are taking care of our citizens; it is what the consulate does,” she said. “We also have events at the consulate in San Diego (about 35 miles south) but more and more of our citizens are afraid to leave their neighborhoods and go any distance, so now we bring our help to where they are.”
More than 200 people came to the July event in scalding heat, waiting patiently for dental exams and appointment referrals as well as having basic blood pressure readings, tests for unhealthy blood sugar levels and for anemia. Those conditions are common and often undiagnosed.
The official documents on offer are a big draw. About a dozen consulate employees do their best to search databases and furnish identity cards and other documents that will be necessary if they are deported to their home country.
But people tend to come in family groups, and they almost always take time to visit the health care booths. On this Saturday in July, about 40 women including Sonia Valenzuela’s family, got free mammograms from Alinea Mobile Mammograms.
For many, it’s the first time they have been tested for any of an array of conditions.
While she waited in line for a mammogram, Valenzuela said she has been in the U.S. for 14 years without documents. She came to the U.S. to join her mom and her younger sister who’d come about six years earlier, she said. They were already working for a laundry service and, during harvest, for a small organic farm. She went right to work and has worked ever since.
“I don’t normally go to a clinic unless I have to. It has been 20 years since my mom went to the clinic,” Valenzuela said. “It costs so much and most of the time, unless it’s an infection or a broken bone, we take care of ourselves with homeopathic medicine.”
When citizens are ill, they often start by calling the consulate, according to Cecilia Guzman, coordinator of the embassy’s Ventanilla de Salud. Those calls are sometimes heartbreaking, she said.
“A woman in (rural) Oregon called us this week, she has cancer and can’t find a place to get treatment, so we are looking here,” Guzman said. “But we fear too much time has gone by and we won’t be able to save her – that she is undocumented made it too hard to look for care.”
Had she been in San Diego, or one of the nine other California cities that have consulates, her access to treatment would have been much greater and much faster.
“We have more than 80 partnerships with clinics and hospitals in the county,” said Guzman. “We can get them to the best clinic for their health problems.”
At the Vista Community Clinic booth, people lined up for finger-stick exams for anemia and glucose levels. Staff at the booth also offered dental education and exams.
The community clinic has its core location near one of the county’s largest barrios, and has established clinics in five locations in San Diego County and one in south Riverside county, at Lake Elsinore. Farm workers and their families are concentrated in San Diego’s inland North County as well as southeast Riverside county.
“Many of our patients don’t have the opportunity to see a dentist or they are afraid that someone will notify la Migra,” said Nancy Rocha, the clinic’s program coordinator for care. “We can reassure people that this is a safe place and that we care.”
A private clinic, Las Palmas, set up a booth nearby and put a blood pressure cuff on anyone who got near the booth.
“We always find a few people whose readings are quite high,” said Las Palmas nurse Araceli Gonzalez. “We usually have to explain that it’s a health problem and that it can be easily controlled.”
Silvia, a 47-year old grandmother originally from Guanajuato, came to the event for documents to prove she is a citizen of Mexico. But when she walked through the courtyard and saw that she could get a mammogram, her first, she signed up.
“My son’s wife tells me again and again that I should get one,” she said. “But we don’t have much money and I work long days helping my husband. I don’t know where I can get one where they don’t ask for papers.”
Most families seeking care at the event are undocumented adults with children born in the U.S., Guzman said. The consulate also has staff and events to persuade parents to enroll their kids in Medi-Cal.
“A lot of people are afraid that by enrolling, the government will find them and deport them,” she said. “We encourage them and explain how private their medical records are by U.S. law… Sometimes they still don’t believe us.”
People who unknowingly have chronic conditions related to nutrition are often diagnosed at the consul’s mobile events.
“Anemia is common in our North County citizens,” Guzman said. “It is more common because of their limited access to food and not being educated about diet. Many people in North County work in agriculture and live in places where access to a variety of healthy food is very limited.”
The consulate and health partners invite families – and particularly pregnant women – to nutrition classes held in North County churches, the last sanctuaries for the undocumented.
“We work with them on nutrition and better food choices, and try to give them enough information to take better care of their health.”
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of undocumented immigrants.