Susana Ramirez, a health communication professor at UC Merced, is searching for ways to better share health information with bicultural Latinas – a population that can be hard to reach because of linguistic and cultural differences.
Ramirez has launched a five-year project to improve communication about healthy eating to young women who have strong ties to both their U.S. and Latino identities. The goal, Ramirez explained, is to encourage women in this group to improve their diet and reduce their risk of breast cancer.
According to the latest U.S. Census data, 18 percent of the U.S. population is Latino. This number is estimated to grow to 25 percent by 2050. Much of the growth, the professor said, will come not from immigration but from people born in the United States and their children.
It’s not enough to simply deliver messages in Spanish, Ramirez said. “We have to remember that not all people who identify as Latino speak Spanish,” she said.
Those creating communication campaigns need to figure out how best to reach this segment of the population, and to craft messages that recognize their dual cultural identities, she said. Some ideas include designing primarily English messages that have key words in Spanish, following patterns similar to how their parents or grandparents might speak, or including more representations of people who look and sound like themselves in information campaigns, the professor said.
“We know a lot about making messages effective, but not for the bicultural audiences,” Ramirez said.
Latinos in the United States are known to be a group with high rates of diabetes and obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And obesity in women, Ramirez explained, has been linked to an increase in the risk of developing breast cancer.
This group tends to develop unhealthy eating habits at an early age, creating a great need for health communication that can surpass cultural and linguistic barriers, she said.
“Advertising companies selling bad foods are really good at reaching diverse populations,” Ramirez said. “We in public health need to be better.”
The project will target bicultural Latinas between the ages of 18 and 29 in Merced County. Eventually, the professor and her student research assistants will use mobile phones to share health-related text and multimedia messages to reach a group that tends to be tech-savvy. But to create the library of messages needed to engage participants, researchers must first study the target group.
During the first two years, the researchers will interview young Latina women who identify as bicultural to learn why they are not responding to current health-promotion messages, such as public service announcements. The professor also hopes that by targeting young mothers, the messages will result in healthier eating habits for the entire family.
Ramirez knows communication alone will not change people’s behaviors, but it is a factor, she said.
The five-year project is funded by a $639,000 grant from the National Cancer Institute. The announcement of the work comes during National Hispanic Heritage Month and Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
“We are very pleased that the National Cancer Institute recognized the importance of Professor Ramirez’s project, which has the potential to benefit Hispanic women throughout our region, the state and the nation,” said Sam Traina, vice chancellor for research and economic development at the university, in a statement.