Aida Maisonet Giachello: A career transforming health for Puerto Ricans in Chicago

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When a three year old Aida Maisonet arrived in New York City in the 1950s,  with her three other siblings, she never imagined that she would become one of the leading Latino healthcare advocates in Chicago. Her parents, Ramon Maisonet Seise and Hortensia Gonzalez Cordero, moved the entire family seeking better economic opportunities. When her family first arrived to NYC with three other siblings in the late 1950s, they experienced economic hardship and lived off welfare for about a year until her parents found factory jobs to support the family. While living in Spanish Harlem, Maisonet experienced both childhood poverty first-hand while observing  the serious problems of drug abuse and gang activities and violence in the neighborhood.

Today Giachello is a respected educator and researcher on Hispanic/Latino health who has long been involved in community mobilization and action. She founded several organizations including the Midwest Hispanic AIDS Coalition  and the Midwest Latino Health Research, Training and Policy Center at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC). She has served on numerous local and national boards, and is involved in countless grassroots efforts to address health and human services issues of racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, women as a group, and other vulnerable populations. Currently, she is a research professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, Chicago. She has received over 44 awards and recognitions throughout the years, including being honored in 2005 by Time Magazine’s as One of 25 Most Influential Hispanics in America, in 2010 being named as One of Ten Persons Who Inspire by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). She has also been published in and recognized by various Latino and Hispanic publications, including National Hispanic Magazine, and People En Español.

This Puerto Rican powerhouse is a frequent speaker in local, national and international health and human services conferences, she provides consultation in healthcare to hospitals and clinics and academic institutions, teach health policy courses at Northwestern University and conducts research on Latino health, including being an investigator of the largest cardiovascular study among Hispanics in the US sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and being conducted in Chicago, Miami, Bronx, and San Diego. While in December of 2010, she retired from UIC where she held the position of Associate Professor at the Jane Addams College of Social Work (JACSW) for 25 years and Center Director of the Midwest Latino Health Research, Training & Policy Center, Aida does not show signs of slowing down on her quest to disseminate the importance of healthcare and wellness to her community.

Such commitment may have started early on her life as she watched her parents work seven-days a week to save some money. When Aida was 10 years old, her family came back to the island and opened a restaurant. Her childhood experiences in NYC and in PR led Maisonet to commit to an agenda of social justice, addressing  income and racial inequalities, particularly as they related to health care. She was also equally  commited to breaking the cycle of poverty  by getting a college education. She first earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and psychology from the University of Puerto Rico, a master’s degree from the School of Social Services Administration (SSA), University of Chicago and a PhD in Medical Sociology also at the University of Chicago.

Critical events led her down this path. In Puerto Rico, after conducting follow up interviews for a longitudinal study about social change in the island, the study investigators offered her a position to assist in data analysis at Northwestern University- Evanston campus, IL. With her husband, Stelvio O. Giachello Pesqueira, she relocated to Chicago in December of 1968. Almost immediately, she met Silvia Herrera, then Director of ASPIRA, Inc.—one of the earliest community-based organizations encouraging Puerto Ricans and other Latino groups to complete high school and to get a college education. Herrera informed her of the availability of scholarships in social work and encouraged her to apply to the University of Chicago School of Social Services Administration. At first, Maisonet Giachello was hesitant to apply as she was expecting her first child. Trepidation aside, She applied to SSA and received the letter of acceptance with full scholarship the same day she came home from the hospital with her newborn. After completing her MA in 1971, the family returned to Puerto Rico.

While in Puerto Rico she first worked as director  of a juvenile delinquency prevention program for the City of San Juan, and later on she joined the faculty Department of Social Sciences, Psychology and Social Work at the Interamerican University, Hato Rey.

 In 1976, the family returned to Chicago, much as her parents once did in New York, seeking better employment opportunities for her husband. By then, Maisonet Giachello had three small children and was convinced that she wanted to get a PhD and do research. She jumped at the chance to apply to the PhD program at the University of Chicago Sociology Department. While working toward her PhD, she started simultaneously working full time as a Medical Social Worker for the Chicago Department of Public Health, who was opening a new clinic at a community that served as point of entry to Mexican immigrants.

Working there, she discovered her second passion: health care. Maisonet Giachello became aware of the financial (cost, lack of health insurance), linguistic, cultural and institutional barriers of Latinos, the poor and other vulnerable populations in getting access to quality medical care. That’s when she decided to specialize in Sociology of Health and Illness, addressing social justice issues in the area of health through research and policy work. Working as a social worker at the clinic, she also discovered that the health delivery system in the U.S. was not responsive to the need of the poor, racial, and ethnic minorities and women as a group and people who have different languages, health beliefs and behaviors. Patients often did not receive quality of care when exhibiting signs of serious health concerns. Diabetes, asthma and other acute or chronic conditions were dismissed and redirected to social workers. As a result of her increased awareness of these dynamics and her recognition of the role of social policies to change them, she was instrumental in developing organizations such as the Chicago Hispanic Health Alliance in 1980, and became involved in numerous political campaigns where Hispanics/Latinos African Americans  and/or women were running for public offices.

One of these campaigns was working as a volunteer during the primaries and the general elections of Harold Washington, the first Chicago Black Mayor who got elected in 1983. She assisted in organizing minority and women groups; developed  speech remarks in the areas of health and human services, and assisted in the development of concept papers to establish the Mayor Office for Latino Affairs and the Mayor Office for Women Affairs.

After the Mayor was elected, the new Health Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health (Dr. Lonnie Edwards) offered her the position of Special Assistant for Hispanic Affairs, after listening to her testimony about the needs of Chicago Latinos during city wide public hearings. In that position, she conducted health assessments and launched a comprehensive  Hispanic Health policies  agenda to address the health needs of Latinos and to improve the delivery of medical care to this population through the Chicago Department of Public Health’s 44 neighborhood health centers and clinics.

In 1986, Maisonet Giachello decided to return to academia and accepted an appointment as Assistant Professor at the JACSW at UIC. She applied for federal CDC funding during the HIV/AIDS epidemic and established in the 1980s the Midwest Hispanic AIDS Coalition-a six state partnership of community, professional and academic institutions engaging in community mobilization around HIV/AIDS, research, training and community awareness and education. In 1993, also through CDC federal funding, she established the Midwest Latino Health Research, Training and Policy Center at UIC. Her center focuses on chronic diseases (diabetes, asthma, hypertension, cancer) and maternal and child health issues building upon the work of Jane Adams and other great women of Hull House during the US Progressive Era (1890-1910).

While the work will never truly be complete, much has been done as a result of her community organizing and capacity building through training; research, and policy work, and the development of innovative community interventions such as the use of community health workers (health promoters) as diabetes education, the use of meditation techiques to reduce high blood pressure, the development of diabetes Self-care Centers in selected Latino communities, and addressing  the lack of access to  medical care and to affordable food in food deserts communities. Maisonet Giachelo has developed intervention programs that are currently being used in US-Mexico Borders, Puerto Rico and selected countries in South America. Many of her work has been published in professional research journals.

Through her research, policy and advocacy work, Maisonet Giachello has gained the respect of appointed and elected officials, and the public health community. She has become a national leader and an expert on Latino health. She is a strong advocate for increasing cultural proficiency and competency in health services delivery, and reducing cross cultural communications at the patient-doctor levels, and at the health care delivery system levels by changing organizational & cultural norms and policies. One of the things that she is working on, aligned with this mission, is ensuring that there is a greater number of Hispanic health care professionals and researchers. She is determined to change the research paradigm from research on minorities to research with, for and by minority groups. Doing this, Maisonet Giachello is paving the way for others in the community to greatly contribute to society.

© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 25 September 2015. 

Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.