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La Fe Clinic Serves South El Paso
Article first published in Vol. 15, 1997.
By A. C. Westover
Health care seemed to be the least of the nation's concerns in the late 1960s, when the Vietnam War was escalating, racial tensions were at their worst, and the supposed sexual revolution was occurring. But President L. B. Johnson initiated numerous social programs to serve as avenues of self-help, including the establishment of community health centers. These facilities, including El Paso's La Fe Clinic, became the lifeline of health care to people with little or no income. Government and communities banded together to open community health centers across America in an attempt to provide health care services to rural and urban individuals who could not afford health insurance or had no money to pay for medical care. Thus, these clinics came to be known as "free clinics."
Photo by Ray M. Pierce
In the 1960s, El Paso's Southside was one of the poorest communities in the Southwest, with people living in third world conditions. People living in this area of town, known as the "Segundo Barrio," had little or no financial resources and would not seek out medical care until they found themselves extremely ill. Carlos Caballero, activist and former resident of the barrio, says, "People relied on home remedies, yerbas [herbs]. They would go to Juárez to seek medical services. It was cheaper."
Ignacio Acosta, former board member and consultant to La Fe, recalls: "The clinic's development was prompted by the death of a five-year-old girl who fell while carrying soft drink bottles, inflicting deep wounds to her wrists. The ambulance took so long in getting here that she died in route to Thomason Hospital." This tragedy prompted Nina Cordero, a political activist and a tenant in Los Seis Infiernos (The Six Holes of Hell), a tenement complex on Fourth and Ochoa Streets, to campaign for medical services for her community. She and other community members went around the city asking doctors to help set up a clinic by volunteering their time providing medical services to the people of the barrio. She managed to get the attention of several political leaders, including Dr. Raymundo Gardea.
After long discussions with the political leaders of the city and Dr. Gardea, the clinic opened its doors in 1967 one night a week in a tenement apartment. This first clinic was named after Father Rahm, a Catholic priest who ministered to the Segundo Barrio. People would line up for hours in hopes of seeing a doctor. Medical supplies were donated, and Dr. Gardea provided primary health care services. After a few weeks of treating people at Los Seis Infiernos, the clinic organizers began to realize the magnitude of the problem; it wasn't just that ambulances took too long to get to their neighborhoods, but that their community needed a much broader range of medical services.
Salvador Balcorta, then a young activist and today the chief executive officer for La Fe, recalls that the clinic quickly became too small. Shortly after its inception, the clinic moved into a storefront at the corner of Third and St. Vrain, says Balcorta.
However, examining rooms had to be divided by curtains, private conversations were impossible and sometimes doctors would examine up to two people in one room in order to keep up with the flow of patients. But services expanded to include family planning counseling. The Father Rahm Clinic was still being operated by medical volunteers and could only operate a few days a week when they were available. Community doctors donated their time, medical supplies and equipment. Thomason Hospital interns also volunteered their time in hopes of gaining further experience and helping the people of the community.
If no volunteers were available, the clinic remained closed. However, "Dr. Gardea and Dr. Raul Rivera were always there," recalls Manny De La Rosa, one of the clinic's organizers.
Meanwhile, Father Rahm requested that his name be removed from the clinic, explaining that the name of a Catholic priest should not be associated with the condoning of family planning practices.
Eventually, it was decided that the people from the barrio would choose a name for the clinic through a contest, with the winner receiving a living room set. As a result, the Father Rahm Clinic became "Centro de Salud Familiar La Fe" (The Faith Family Health Center). The religious link thus was maintained and the importance of "faith " emphasized.
The clinic operated in cramped conditions for months until a Presbyterian church on Tate Street donated its facilities to the clinic. People from the barrio remodeled the building, enabling the clinic to increase its services, which included primary care, prenatal care, family planning counseling, part-time dental services, referrals to hospitals, laboratories and social workers to facilitate medical and financial assistance to all community members who visited the clinic. De La Rosa says, "The community members involved knew that this was only a stepping stone to the future. "
As change occurred within the city, people began to realize that they could do much more for themselves and their families. The Chicano Movement was in full force when the clinic first opened, another reason for the Southside community to involve itself in the struggle for equal health care as well as equal rights.
"The Second Ward had united for one common fight", recalls Carlos Caballero. "I remember people would donate bandages, alcohol, anything they could give. They wanted a clinic for their families now!"
In the 1970s, La Fe further expanded to its present location at 700 S. Ochoa. A satellite clinic opened in September 1996 at the comer of Delta and Lisbon Streets near the Border Highway, and the San Elizario satellite clinic moved to larger facilities in May 1996. These extensions of La Fe Clinic bring services to families who might not otherwise receive medical care.
Balcorta has announced plans for a 25,000 square-foot Child and Adolescent Wellness Center. The date for groundbreaking ceremonies will be set soon. Thousands of Southside children and teens will have the opportunity to learn the importance of nutrition, drug awareness and preventive medicine through music, computers and theater while receiving the medical care that hard work and faith brought to their neighborhood almost 30 years ago.