Hispanic Heritage Month: Venus Gines' 'Fiestas' Saving Lives of Latinas

While her notoriety may be under the radar, Venus Gines has done some of the most important work in the Latino community.

Although Gines doesn’t know the exact number of lives she’s saved with her “Health Fiestas,”over 80,000 women have received free mammograms and cervical cancer screenings thanks to her organization Dia De La Mujer Latina.

Having won dozens of awards for her work with Latinas, including a couple from First Lady Michelle Obama, Gines has been instrumental in helping to define the term “Latino.”

Gines' mission began over 20 years ago when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992.

Studying for her Master’s degree at the time, Gines saw how little information there was about Latinos and cancer. Gines began to focus her work on researching the cancer disparities in the Latino community.

By 1996, Gines developed a culturally specific video and picture book on breast cancer, Una Nueva Esperanza, and later, Hombre Sin Límite, on prostate cancer for the American Cancer Society (ACS).

Following the books and the video, Gines wanted to see if she had adequately addressed some of the fears and barriers of the at-risk Latino population and decided to do so through the development of Dia de la Mujer Latina.

Working together with ACS and the Mexican consulate's office, Gines began to implement what she titled “Health Fiestas”-- a place where people could receive free cancer screenings in an environment where Latinos felt comfortable and culturally understood.

When I was diagnosed, I thought like a lot of Latina women, that breast cancer was a white woman’s disease."

— Venus Gines

The "fiestas" were a community-wide collaboration of Latino clubs, private and non-profit organizations, state and county health departments, community merchants, media, volunteers, and healthcare providers who would provide early detection and screenings for breast, cervical, prostate cancer, HIV, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases.

“When I was diagnosed, I thought like a lot of Latina women, that breast cancer was a white woman’s disease," Gines tells Fox News Latino. "So I never got my annual checkups, and I was shocked when my doctor found a lump. I became a woman on a mission. From then on, I would advise all the Latina women in my life to get checked."

Gines believes there a number of reasons that Latinas are suspicious of the medical world.

“Maybe they’re not fully insured or not educated," she says. "Of course there could be a language barrier and many women have a real fear and mistrust of clinical studies. And with good reason."

Gines’ mother was part of the historic sterilizations of Puerto Rican women that took place in 1958. She was just 29 years old.

“She was told she was just going to have her tubes tied and she assumed if she’d wanted to have children later, she’d be able to," said Gines. "Of course she eventually found out the truth. There were similar eugenic programs going on in Los Angeles with Mexican-American women."

What Gines figured out is that before healthcare in the Latino community could improve, there needed to be a change and awareness of cultural sensitivity, and trained people who could be the conduit between the community and medical institutions.

Gines would call these people “Promotores.”

Now in its 15th year, Gines trains these women, as well as men and teens, to work with the community and help them navigate the physical screenings as well as the insurance companies, and even perhaps clinical studies.

President Obama included the term "community health workers" as the umbrella term for “Promotores” in his Affordable Care Act—along with doulas and nurse practitioners.

“I’m very proud of our president," Gines says. "He’s committed to helping lessen the health disparities in poor and under-served communities. It’s the first time a president has looked at and recognized Promotores and community health workers."

"We’re hoping to see more and more women get treatments, and the opening of more doors to great health. When my position here at Baylor University ends at the first of the year, I’ll be like many of these women---uninsured with a pre-existing medical condition. Without the Affordable Care Act, I would be denied coverage."

As the rest of the United States celebrates Hispanic/Latino Heritage and Breast Cancer Awareness months, Gines says this time of year is one of her most difficult.

“Since the fall of 1992, October has been the most excruciating months for me and for many of my colleagues," Gines says. "We celebrate Hispanic/Latino Heritage Month and BRCA and also Domestic Violence awareness, and the Health Fiestas during this month in Houston."

She says they send out sample flyers to residents in the poorest neighborhoods. Exams are free, she says, but the $20 annual fee gets them into the system for follow-up care.

"The Promotores will be paid a stipend from those funds," Gines says. "We desperately need funds for our programs because at this point, we have not received any new funding."

"Every Fall I have to go and get my annual check-up and it is like a cloud over my head -- I'm terrified and can't even eat the night before," she says. "But this year, I celebrate 20 years and thank God each day."