Gabriel Perez entered the world with a condition that would keep him from speaking clearly for many years. Now, he speaks on behalf of hundreds.
Perez, D23, is the current student trustee for the national Hispanic Dental Association (HDA), making him the voice of some 930 Latinx students from 60 dental school chapters around the country. Between his involvement with HDA; his outreach efforts to groups like migrant farm workers in South Jersey or low-income children in Boston; and his desire to lead other young Latinos into dentistry, Perez is determined to raise the profile of oral care within Hispanic communities.
“That is the link with his life story,” says Martha Forero, assistant professor of public health and community service, and one of Perez’s mentors at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine.
Like many thousands of children throughout the world, Perez was born with a cleft lip and palate, an abnormality that results when the lip and the roof of the mouth do not close completely during fetal development. It’s not only disfiguring—it can result in difficulties in infant feeding and breathing, and, if not corrected as the child grows, in speech impediments.
Access to dental and medical care was scarce in Perez’s hometown of Teococuilco in southwest Mexico, a town with strong indigenous roots. The nearest specialists who could perform the surgery to treat him were a three-hour trip away in Oaxaca City. “Being a child in this community with cleft lip and cleft palate was extremely hard,” Perez recalls. His impaired speech led to “years of bullying and people making fun of the way I spoke.” Eventually, his clefts were repaired. “But other things, like speech pathology and mental health resources, were not even suggested to my parents,” he says.
His visits to the cleft lip and palate clinic in Oaxaca made a big impression. “Being surrounded by these dental professionals, and these other children with oro- and- maxillofacial defects, I saw how impactful dentistry could be.”
But for a child like him, becoming a dentist “was just a fantasy,” he says. “I don’t think it would have been possible for me, if I had stayed in Mexico.” When he was 11, his family emigrated to the United States, settling in New Jersey’s heavily agricultural Pinelands. With help from his teachers, he learned English and his speech improved. He attended Stockton University, a state college not far from home. And he realized he could, after all, become a dentist.
When he applied to Tufts, he was interviewed by Aidee Herman, associate professor of periodontology and a former national HDA president, who founded the Tufts student HDA chapter and advised it for 20 years. “I was very impressed with his mature personality and his professionalism,” Herman says. For his part, Perez says, he “felt so welcomed at Tufts, which was a big factor when deciding which school to attend.” Early on, Herman became one of Perez’s teachers and mentors, and the two have worked together on community service projects, most recently, “Give Kids a Smile,” where they provided oral-care kits and information for children of low-income and immigrant families.
At the end of his first year, when the COVID pandemic began, Perez went back to South Jersey and turned his attention to the area’s migrant farm workers and homeless population. With the help of the national HDA and its executive director, Manuel Cordero, he organized outreach events that included oral-health kits with instructions in English and Spanish. While the farm laborers became part of the much-lauded “essential workers” during the pandemic, that didn’t make it any easier for them to access dental care, which had always been largely out-of-reach due to lack of insurance, language barriers, and fears connected to immigration status, Perez says.
“Most of these workers are seasonal. They likely have families to feed back in their countries, or here in the U.S. Prioritizing basic needs over oral care plays a role,” he says. “A lot of people wait until the last minute, until something that could have been preventable becomes a major procedure.”
Many of those same circumstances exist in other Latinx communities around the country. “I believe oral health is not prioritized in our culture,” Perez says. “Not knowing the importance of dental care, not having the resources, is something that is affecting our community negatively.” Nationwide, studies record poorer markers of oral health among Latinx children and adults than among white non-Hispanics; Latinx dentists are also significantly underrepresented in the profession.
Through HDA, Perez has made outreach to undergraduate and predental students a priority. And that, says Forero, will ultimately make a difference: “Mentors like Gabriel hold your hand and open the doors so you can see what’s possible.”
Helene Ragovin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.