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Dr. Joel Robles Uribe and I in 2008. We had not seen each other for 14 years. Sadly, it was for my father's funeral.

It’s Christmas, 1993. I’m 25 and excited to be going to Mexico for the first time. With my father and his new wife, Martha, I meet my Mexican family. At the rustic little beach house in Sayulita, Martha teaches me to make ceviche and shows me how to wash my clothes by hand. Two Guadalajaran brothers invite me to take a road trip with them and I end up staying five months, three of them in Guadalajara teaching English at a bilingual kindergarten and volunteering in the Department of Preventive Medicine at Guadalajara’s public hospital, Hospital civil.

That last part was made possible by Dr. Joel Robles Uribe.

He is my stepmother’s brother, mi tío político. The night before asking him how I can staying in Mexico and volunteer, I cram, studying my little dictionary — my Spanish was pretty bad. Three years in high school but not much practice speaking, and tío Joel didn’t speak English.

Querio ser voluntaria,” is what I manage to say. Gracious man that he is, he worked it all out. “Why don’t you volunteer here, in the hospital (where he is a doctor)?” I was so excited! I was going to stay in Guadalajara and volunteer! I would be so useful! The Hospital Civil needed me; it didn’t even have soap in the bathrooms.

The nurses looked at me sideways and said little. I saw no other volunteers in the whole place, and I don’t think they knew what to make of me. They probably thought I was some spoiled relative they had to put up with, in between doing their nails and taking their hour desayuno breaks. To me, this was a hospital? I never saw such leisurely nurses. Such patient patients. Just waiting, never complaining, never in a rush.  I wanted to run around and get things done. I bought soap for the bathrooms; they were all gone the next day. I worked with the Oficina de planificación familiar. We put up family planning and contraceptive posters and they were all gone the next day, too.

My Spanish was so bad I didn’t know how to ask what had happened. I assumed the administration took them down. Or patients stole them.

Dr. Joel put me on blood pressure duty. I got to take patients’ blood pressure and dictate the numbers to the nurses, who dutifully wrote them down. Then one day Dr. Joel, who knew I had studied nutrition, said to me:

“I want you to prepare a talk, in Spanish, about controlling blood pressure through lifestyle and diet.”

What?” I said.

“You’ll deliver this talk to patients in the waiting room in one week.”

Gulp. I could barely say “la presión de la sangre es 110 sobre 80.” I worked hard. I studied my little dictionary every night. I recalled as much as I could about the topic, wrote it in English and then translated it into Spanish.

The day of the talk, about 10 patients were  in the waiting room, as usual, with plenty of time to kill. I spoke for a minute about controlling high blood pressure.

Uh….una forma de controlar la presión de la sangre es hacer ejercicio…” I faltered, nervous.

One of the female patients chimed in, “como bailar…?”

I said, “Yes! Like dancing!!”

From there the ‘talk’ was interactive and fun, and the patients really helped my struggling Spanish. I like to think I left them with a couple tips for being healthier – or, at the very least, provided them with some good gringo entertainment.

When I returned to the states 5 months later, with passable español I secured a bilingual job essentially doing the same thing Dr. Joel had just trained me to do. I worked in public health and delivered talks about pesticide safety. I owe so much to him for pushing me beyond my comfort level, for providing me with such an excellent opportunity, and helping me feel useful in meaningful work.

An Homenaje en vida, or Living Tribute was given to Dr. Joel in San Blas, Mexico in October, 2010. An interview with him, in Spanish, is published in the Periódico Panorama Nayarita. From this I learned many details of his political and personal life as a doctor that I found so fascinating and touching, I wanted to share it with you. I have translated it to English (any errors are my own) so you can know a bit more about this very interesting and gifted mentor. Please see the English translation here.


It’s a well-known phrase from Mexico — “Mi casa es su casa”. Mexican hospitality is legendary and was probably one of the things that attracted my Dad during his first visit, back in 1988.

My stepmother, Martha, is from Tepic, Nayarit, Mexico. She married my Dad 22 years ago, and moved to Calistoga, California. Equipped with little more than a positive outlook, lots of life experience, her medical training, and zero English, she embarked on one of the biggest journeys of her life.

The mobile home, when it was for sale in 2008

How they met is a story in itself. Back before the days of Internet dating, there were pen pals. Remember those? They corresponded, talked on the phone through interpreters, and eventually she invited him to Mexico for Christmas. He fell in love (not just with her but with her family and the people) and asked her to marry him. She said yes. Of course it was a difficult journey for Martha. At the age of 48 — and never before married, she gave up her career, had to learn to speak English, and embraced American life all while giving up close contact with her extended family in Mexico. If anyone could do it, it was her.

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