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VCU’s new La Esperanza Lab to study health disparities, impact of immigration policy on Richmond’s Latinx population

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Oswaldo Moreno, Ph.D.
Photo by Thomas Kojcsich, University Marketing

Growing up in Arizona as the son of Mexican immigrants, Oswaldo Moreno, Ph.D., saw firsthand how the United States’ immigration policies could affect Latinx communities.

Now, as a new faculty member at Virginia Commonwealth University, Moreno is gearing up to study how policies — including access to health care, immigration restrictions and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — are affecting Latinx students at VCU, as well as the growing Hispanic population of the Richmond region.

“The reason why I do this is because I feel heavily involved with these communities. I come from a Latin community myself. I was raised in Phoenix, the hub of immigration policies [that were characterized by] discrimination constructs, prejudice and institutional biases,” said Moreno, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “Now all that’s on a national platform, impacting communities like Richmond.”

Moreno’s La Esperanza Lab (“esperanza” is Spanish for “hope”) at VCU aims to understand and address health care disparities in the United States that affect individuals from low-income and racial and ethnic minority backgrounds.

As part of that work, Moreno will be reaching out to schools, churches and other community partners in the Richmond region to work together to better understand and support marginalized communities and families.

It’s very much community, community, community. I want the community to inform the work and I want the community to benefit.

“Everything we’re doing is very translational. It’s very much community, community, community. I want the community to inform the work and I want the community to benefit,” he said. “I don't want [our research] to just be another publication or CV booster. I want it to [focus on] how does this science translate in the community and benefit the community, both here in Richmond and at a macro level, at a policy level?”

Moreno’s lab is preparing to conduct a needs assessment study within the Latinx community, investigating questions such as: How are individuals thinking about access to care? What are the attitudes and what are the perceptions? Where are they going to seek care? How are they being impacted by immigration laws and enforcement? How do they perceive their health in Richmond?

He is also preparing to launch a psychological study within the VCU student body, as well as the community, to assess the impact of DACA, which allowed roughly 800,000 individuals brought to the United States illegally as minors — known as Dreamers — to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and to be eligible for a work permit. The Trump administration rescinded the policy in September.

“For DACA students, for example, what’s keeping them hopeful? Cultural constructs? Community? [Determining those factors] would let us bring that back into the community and say, ‘Keep doing that,’” Moreno said.

Moreno joined VCU as part of iCubed, for inclusion, inquiry and innovation, which seeks to eradicate silos by creating collaborations among faculty from a variety of backgrounds to solve real challenges facing the welfare of urban populations.

He is part of an iCubed team called the Oral Health in Childhood and Adolescence Transdisciplinary Core, which is working to identify and remove the educational, political, psychological, social and nutritional barriers to the prevention and treatment of tooth decay in the children and adolescents of Richmond. Tooth decay is the most common childhood disease. Youth who suffer tooth decay have lower academic achievement in school and are at higher risk for systemic diseases as adults.

“Oswaldo has a breadth of lived experiences, both personal and professional, that have informed his worldview about the value of community-engaged research with urban communities. He is an integral part of our Oral Health in Childhood and Adolescence Transdisciplinary Core and brings to the team a focus on culturally sensitive interventions and preventions,” said Aashir Nasim, Ph.D., professor and director of the Institute for Inclusion, Inquiry and Innovation and VCU’s interim vice provost for faculty affairs.

“Oswaldo’s involvement and dedicated work with the Latinx community has positioned our university community quite well to have a tremendously positive impact with the growing Latinx population in and surrounding Richmond,” he added.

Wendy Kliewer, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Psychology, said Moreno has arrived in Richmond at a critical time to conduct research with a transitioning population.

“Richmond is a ripe social laboratory in which to conduct his research on the effects of parent-adolescent differences in acculturation on adolescent health behaviors and well-being,” she said. “His work also complements the existing strengths of our counseling doctoral program which include community-based approaches, with a strong focus on health behaviors and outcomes as well as on stress- and trauma-related experiences and their impacts on health and work.”

Prior to joining VCU, Moreno was a postdoctoral researcher at Brown University and received his doctorate from Clark University.

“Broadly defined, [my specialization has been] looking at ethnic minority psychology, Latinx psychology, looking at health disparities in mental health care, and some psychology of religion among underrepresented populations,” he said. “And looking at access to care, help-seeking behaviors, cultural and contextual approaches to psychopathology — whether it be depression, substance use, addictions and so forth.”

Looking ahead, Moreno said he is excited about the opportunity to research and work with Richmond’s Latinx population, potentially making people’s lives better both locally and on a national scale.

“It'd be cool if the work that is coming out of Richmond, that is coming out of these communities, could impact policy that affects the [entire] country,” he said.

 

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