Mexican-born Dr. Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola has become a staunch champion of mental health services for Latinos in California.
“I always loved reading and when my parents bought us the encyclopedia “El Tesoro de la Juventud” (The Treasure of Childhood), I would lie on the floor reading about voyages, geography, history…it was like traveling in my mind, in my imagination,” he tells Efe.
And the habit of reading gave him the ability to dream big and to know that “I could do anything if I tried hard enough and was really determined.”
And so he follows a maxim of Latino civil rights leader and labor organizer Cesar Chavez that has inspired him: “In order to have a great dream come true, you must first have a great ability to dream.”
“But then what is challenging, what is difficult is to keep on trying no matter how often you fail,” he says.
Aguilar-Gaxiola graduated from medical school in Guadalajara and began practicing his profession. “I had two jobs,” he recalls. “One was in Mexico’s Health Department where I saw patients at one of the clinics, and the other was with an agency that dealt with the prevention and treatment of addictions.”
In that agency he and a psychiatrist co-founded the first clinic for the prevention and treatment of addictions in Mexico.
“We had 12 beds that were constantly occupied. People came from all over the country.”
From that experience he learned that “if we don’t involve the family in those rehab treatments we don’t make any real progress.”
He later earned a PhD from Vanderbilt University in Nashville and practiced at San Francisco General Hospital.
There he had the chance to co-found a clinic for treating depression and where he worked with its Latino patients.
In 1987 he returned to Mexico and practiced medicine for several years in Guadalajara.
“After being trained intensively for six years I had a culture shock when I went back to an environment where things were done in a very different way,” he recalls.
Frustrated with how things worked in Mexico, he finally decided to accept an invitation from a Hispanic colleague, Dr. Alexander Gonzalez, to teach at California State University, Fresno.
There he took part in researching the mental health of immigrants compared with that of second- and third-generation Hispanics.
Aguilar-Gaxiola was recently named by state Senate President Pro-Tem Darrell Steinberg to co-chair a task force to investigate the equitable distribution of autism services to diverse communities in California.
Based on his personal and professional experience, Aguilar-Gaxiola believes the preservation and strengthening of Latino family values is of vital importance.
“In my family I had the blessing that my parents were very hardworking - without much education - but with a lot of integrity, honesty and compassion, and with a work ethic that they indelibly stamped on my character,” he said.