Esmeralda Lopez

Describe your journey to medicine: what were some defining moments, hurdles, or moments of inspiration?

There are countless moments to choose from. I was lucky to take a class by a Native (Mohawk) mentor. Professor Elizabeth Hoover’s course, Eating Local in Indian Country, inspired and taught me to think critically about food sovereignty as a treaty right. One of the assigned books, Spirit of Our Whaling Ancestors, demonstrated the importance for Indigenous peoples to practice traditional foodways, that culture and health are one and the same.

Why is being a Native American medical student is so important or critical to you?

My identity as a Mixteca (Ñuu Savi) is central to who I am. My motivation to become a physician stems from my lived experience as the daughter of Mixteco farmworkers in the Yakima Valley. I did not only learn about health inequities through textbooks but also through my life experience. My prerogative has always been to see healthcare through the lens of social justice. My experience consisted of health inequities due to systemic factors and inadequate access to linguistic and culturally congruent care.

My experience and studies about historical and contemporary injustices in healthcare have filled me with a hunger to create a new healthcare system found on transformative justice and integrate Indigenous knowledge systems. At the heart of Indigenous knowledge are notions of community and its concomitant survival, an understanding that lived experience is an essential form of knowledge; Indigenous leaders are vital for transforming medicine in their communities.

Do you have any advice or words of support other aspiring Native doctors who might feel this path is unachievable or difficult?

My journey wasn’t easy, tidy or always clear. At times it seemed as though I was fighting an uphill battle. It was messy. I experienced setbacks that looked like dead ends.

A path riddled with hills and valleys. Prematurely, I resented the low points. But now, I’m beyond grateful for each and every one of them. I didn’t know it then, but God was building my character, resilience, and faith.

Protips 1) Don’t let the journey steal your joy or your freedom. 2) It’s not if I get into med school. It’s when I get into med school.

What or who has made the most meaningful impacts and differences in helping you succeed?

I honestly would not be in medical school without the support and encouragement of my mentors, friends, and my family. I am grateful for my sister Yurika. At 10 years old, she voluntarily took the role of being my first history teacher and taught me about Rosa Parks at the age of 4. She quite literally set the tone for my journey. She always speaks truth, clarity, and wisdom into every challenging situation. She taught me how to operate from a place of abundance and to always be teachable. Your community is your strength.