National Latino Physician Day is celebrated across the nation on October 1 to create awareness of the need for more Latino and Latina doctors. Only 6% of U.S. physicians are Hispanic despite the U.S. population being 19% Hispanic/Latinx. Of that 6%, just 2.4% are female.
The first time Mariel Luna Hinojosa, MD, met a Latino doctor was as a student at Indiana University School of Medicine. Throughout her high school and college years, she found helpful academic advisors but no role models or mentors in medicine.
“It’s hard to navigate,” said Luna, now a third-year resident in internal medicine who immigrated from Peru at age 14. She had her sights on becoming a doctor and was determined to do whatever it took to get there. “Google was my best friend. I was searching, ‘How to get into medical school.’”
Luna doesn’t want that to be anyone else’s experience. That’s why she has co-founded communities of Latinx learners and professionals at every level—first the Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA) at IU School of Medicine, then the Latinx Association of Residents and Fellows (LARF), and now the LMSA Pre-Health Latina/o/x Undergraduate Society (PLUS) at IUPUI.
“This is my mission, to have more people like me become doctors,” Luna said. “I want to make sure (students) know a Latino or Latina doctor—so here I am!”
Persevering on the path to MD
Luna’s parents valued education. That was the driving force behind moving their two daughters to Ashburn, Virginia, where other members of her father’s family had already established new lives.
Before the family’s immigration in 2008, they lived in Lima and spent summers with Luna’s grandparents in a small mountain town near the city of Cusco. Luna’s father was a civil engineer, and her mother had a background in communications. Neither was able to find comparable work in the U.S., and the family struggled.
“I wanted to go to college—that was the whole point of why my parents wanted to come here, for us to get a good education,” Luna said. “That’s what I focused on.”
Learning core subjects in the English language was challenging. There were many tears, but Luna discovered an aptitude for science. She had a school counselor who spoke Spanish and an English Language Learner (ELL) teacher who helped her apply to several Virginia colleges. She received a full scholarship to Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and entered the premed track.
“I still talk to my ELL teacher to this day,” said Luna, who remembers calling him “freaking out” about a difficult chemistry class her first year at VCU. “My mom and dad didn’t understand what it was like to go to college in the U.S., and I didn’t want to worry them.”
Luna ended up doing so well in chemistry that she became a peer tutor and a teacher’s assistant. She also sought research experience for her major in psychology and volunteered at the VCU Massey Cancer Center. During summer breaks, Luna worked hard to secure shadowing opportunities with a pediatrician and a family medicine physician, and she volunteered at a pediatric emergency department.
She graduated in 3 ½ years and then worked full time as a clinical technician at a local hospital while studying for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). She didn’t achieve the MCAT score she needed on the first try, but she persevered.
“Once I have a goal, I will do what needs to be done to get to that goal,” Luna said.
She was elated to be admitted to IU School of Medicine in 2017. Her maternal grandparents traveled from Peru to Indiana for her White Coat Ceremony, designating the official start of her educational journey to become a physician.
“My grandpa was so proud when they said my whole name because Hinojosa is his family name,” Luna said. “He is 92 now and always calls me ‘mi doctorita’ (my little doctor).”
The first Latino physician Luna ever met was Javier Sevilla-Martir, MD, assistant dean for diversity affairs, professor of underserved Indiana patients and professor of clinical family medicine. A native of Honduras, Sevilla conducted Luna’s interview for medical school and co-taught her first-year Foundations of Clinical Practice (FCP) course in a special section that emphasizes learning Spanish medical terms and providing culturally competent care.
“He was so nice. He was kind of a like an uncle I had not seen in a long time,” Luna said. “He gave me a hug and kiss on the cheek—as we greet in Latino culture—and it felt very calming to me.”
Through the Spanish FCP course, Luna connected with several other Latinx medical students. She and Maritza Gomez, a 2021 graduate, started a chapter of the Latino Medical Student Association, aiming to empower and advocate for the health of Latinx medical students and the Latinx community of Indiana.
“Mariel is a leader,” said Sevilla-Martir. “Since her first year of medical school, I could see her determination to succeed and help others to do so. She sought every opportunity to serve our community and engage other students as well.”
Luna’s first LMSA regional conference in Chicago was transformative.
“I had never met so many Latino doctors and Latino medical students,” Luna said. “It was very powerful and inspiring for me to see people from all over the Midwest region coming together and talking about issues important to us as Latino doctors in the United States.”
Now a resident in internal medicine, Luna continues to attend LMSA conferences to promote residency programs at IU School of Medicine. She co-presented with Alvaro Tori, MD, senior associate dean for diversity affairs, at the LMSA National Conference in Atlanta in September; IU School of Medicine was a silver sponsor.
“Mariel has great leadership skills, and she has been very strategic on how she does the work that is needed here at IU School of Medicine for our Latinx community,” Tori said. “We are very, very proud of Mariel. Just being a medical student or a resident is challenging enough. She chose to do more.”
Making medicine better
Sometimes it’s challenging being a petite, Latina physician.
“People never think I’m the doctor,” Luna said. “There have been situations where patients, families or even health care professionals disregard what I say because they don’t think I look like what a doctor is supposed to look like. I think it’s mostly implicit bias rather than purposeful racism.”
Feeling a lack of community as an intern, Luna decided something similar to LMSA was needed for residents and fellows. She teamed up with Eleazer Montalvan, MD, and Stephanie Cortes, MD, to form the Latinx Association of Residents and Fellows within the GME Multicultural Physician Alliance at IU School of Medicine. It is the first such association at the graduate medical education level in the U.S., and they are hoping it will become a model for other institutions.
“There was LMSA for medical students and then NHMA (National Hispanic Medical Association) for professionals, but there was this gap for residents and fellows,” Luna said. “With LARF, we’re creating community for residents and fellows where mentorship comes organically. Stories can be shared, and people can find someone to help them with their career goals. Retention is as important as recruitment, and having a community is important to Latino physicians. It’s part of our culture.”
LARF closed the gap for graduate medical education, but Luna didn’t stop there. She also wanted to strengthen mentorship at the undergraduate level. She recruited first-year medical student Liliana Patino to help start up an LMSA-PLUS chapter for pre-med students at IUPUI.
“I was the only Latina premed student in my classes,” said Patino, an IUPUI graduate who now serves as the medical student mentor for LMSA-PLUS and mentorship chair for LMSA. “This experience was very isolating, and it was a dauting task to navigate the medical school application process. The lack of physician relatives or friends made shadowing impossible. So, when Mariel was seeking medical students to help her establish this chapter, I eagerly signed up to help bring this much needed resource and support system for the growing Latinx pre-med population at IUPUI.”
Patino is continually inspired by Luna’s drive and dedication.
“As a first-generation physician, Mariel has shown me we can navigate this journey with mentorship and a strong sense of community,” Patino said. “She excels in conveying ideas and connecting with people.”
On the other end of the mentorship spectrum, Luna has found her own career mentor in Francesca Duncan, MD, an assistant professor of clinical medicine with research interests in health disparities related to lung cancer.
When Luna met Duncan, she saw a path for combining her interest in pulmonary medicine with her passion for equity in health care.
“Dr. Duncan was working on collecting data on tobacco use in specific populations, and she invited me to help; then she let me take the wheel and start writing the abstract,” Luna said. “She let me submit it as first author and gave me the opportunity to present this project at the American Thoracic Society. She is an amazing mentor. I never had anybody who connects so well with me and cares so much about my future.”
In June, Luna was honored to receive the 2023 Dr. Chaniece Wallace Health Care Disparity Research Award. As an extension of her research, Luna is helping design an educational curriculum for trainees, primary care physicians and other stakeholders to aid understanding of disparities in lung cancer and increase rates of lung cancer screening in minoritized populations.
“When I met Mariel during her intern year, I could tell right off that she was very eager to learn and had a passion for caring for her patients, particularly the underserved,” Duncan said. “She has the passion and the drive to work hard. I think she will excel at whatever she puts her mind to.”
After Luna received the award, her father was overwhelmed to read about all the important research and diversity work Mariel has been doing. His eyes swelled with tears.
Luna smiled and told her proud papa, “I’m doing all of those things because I want to make medicine better.”
Sharing cultural traditions: Merengue & Reggaeton
Music and dancing are a big part of Latino culture. Luna learned the salsa, merengue and Peruvian native dances in grade school. You might just find her dancing at The Jazz Kitchen’s Latin Summer Nights Patio Party.
She also likes to share her culture by introducing friends and colleagues to Spanish music, especially reggaeton—a fusion of Latin American, Caribbean and American hip-hop influences.
“I enjoy listening to music mainly in Spanish, and that is how I keep up with my culture,” Luna said. “Reggaeton is a genre that has become more popular now in the United States, too. My favorite artists currently are Karol G, Bad Bunny and Rauw Alejandro.”
New to the genre? Check out Rolling Stone’s list of the “100 Greatest Reggaeton Songs of All Time.”
About Hispanic Heritage Month
Each year, National Hispanic Heritage Month is observed from September 15 to October 15, to pay tribute to the generations of Hispanic Americans who have positively influenced and enriched the United States through achievements and contributions to society. This blog series celebrates the diverse and enriching heritages of Hispanic students, faculty and staff at Indiana University School of Medicine.