I met Abraham Vela playing soccer at San Francisco State University. He and I were on different paths that year. I was struggling to stay in college and he was struggling to enroll in biology courses to achieve his dream of becoming a doctor. It was the late ‘00’s and there was something more frightening happening than the deep v-neck trend: The CSU system was going through major budget cuts.
Vela had wanted to be a doctor since he was a child. In the 1980s, his father, Abraham Vela Sr., received his papers and traveled back to Guatemala to visit his mother for her birthday. He hadn’t seen her since migrating to the United States in the late ‘70s.
The day before his mother’s birthday, a police officer in a drunken rage began randomly shooting people in a park in the town of Morazan. Vela’s cousin was shot. There was no ambulance or nearby clinic, so Abraham’s father offered his truck to transport people to the hospital. But he was also shot and stopped breathing on the way.
“I hear that story a lot,” Vela said. “Every time I’m with my uncles and when I go back to Guatemala, they always talk about it—always. Even though I didn’t realize until later, I think that’s what marked me to become a doctor.”
Central Americans are all too familiar with violence. The trauma it inflicts, paralyzing us, keeping us from fully realizing ourselves. On rare occasions, perhaps as we look back upon the random accidents of our lives, violence can serve as an antecedent, providing meaning to our current circumstance.
“The reason why I wanted to be a doctor was to prevent things like that from happening,” he said. “Last time I was there [in Guatemala], still there was no clinic and this was 20 years after this had happened.”
Because of its budget issues, SF State wasn’t an option for Vela and in 2008 he was forced to rethink his career path. He would have to apply to “post-bac” programs, meaning more money, more hurdles. (Latinos make up 38 percent of the population in California, yet are only 10.5 percent of the total of students who graduate from medical school.)
Then Vela heard about the Latin American School of Medicine program (ELAM) in Cuba through his professor Felix Kury. This professor centroamericano is like a radical lefty fairy god-uncle, using his powers of mentorship to create a path towards critical consciousness. ELAM is an international program offered by the Cuban Government, where international students can become doctors, completely free. The only thing asked of students is that they make a commitment to serve their communities when they return to their home countries.
When asked if his family had any reservations about him leaving to a socialist country, Vela said with a chuckle, “A lot of people thought it was a militarized country with soldiers everywhere with tanks and stuff.” After educating his family about the reality of Cuba, they supported his decision. In 2010 he left for Cuba, packing a few articles of clothing, a kettle, sunblock, a canteen, anti-diarrhea pills, and mosquito repellent.
“The first week alone is the hardest,” he said. “You arrive to this huge school—international school. You have people of all different origins, languages, and religions, and a lot of people from these countries, you know how they feel about the U.S.” As he said this, I imagined a scene from a movie: The bus pulls up to the front of the school. Students begin to gather, peering out of the windows of the buildings. Vela and the other American students step off the bus and you can hear the murmurs. Then someone yells “Yankee!”
He admitted it was a little intimidating, but also that “it was completely different, they’re all friendly, most of them. And you get to express that you are from North America but that you don’t represent the government, and they all understand that, especially the Cubans.”
I wondered what he missed most. I thought about what I would miss—Internet and burritos. His response made me feel terrible. Contact with family was limited to a few minutes on the phone, which was shared between 14 people. They kept schedules designating their day and time—Vela’s night was Thursday. “Those calls were very valuable for everybody,” he said.
Vela returned home six months ago after completing the six-year program. “This reality is a different one than we had in Cuba,” he said. “Dealing with the medical system here—it destroys your dreams, it crumples it up and makes you feel like you can’t accomplish anything.”
Although recognized globally as a doctor, in the United States he has to pass three board exams to practice. While he prepares for the third exam, he volunteers at Clínica Martín-Baró, a free clinic that serves the Latino community of the Mission District. He has had opportunities to go elsewhere, he insists that his mission is the same. “Health is a right,” he says. “I don’t know why we [the United States] can’t accomplish that. [Health] and Education.”
Health as a right may not be so far from reach, even as the Republicans attempt to repeal Obama Care. If passed, the proposed Healthy California Act (SB 562), would guarantee healthcare for all Californians, something Cubans have had since the revolution.
Vela straddles multiple worlds—the Bay Area, Guatemala, Cuba, but his eyes look forward. Alongside his ELAM classmates, he hopes to establish a network of clinics to serve migrants as they migrate north. I get the sense that he will accomplish this and hopefully his story will inspire other centroamericanos, highlighting our ongoing legacy.