Originally from Puebla, Mexico, Gabriel Rincon was 17 years old when he came to the United States in 1972. He found himself working as a dishwasher until immigration officials sent him back to Mexico. He became a dentist while in Mexico, learned English by reading Ian Fleming's popular James Bond books, and returned to the United States in 1984. "Sometimes things happen in life for a reason," said Rincon, who had to repeat dental school in the United States before being allowed to practice here.
In the early days of his career—and also of the HIV/AIDS epidemic—Gabriel Rincon, DDS, spent part of his dental residency caring for AIDS patients in the final stages of the disease. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was not much information being circulated about HIV, particularly in New York City's Mexican American community, for whom the topics of sex and gender roles were taboo. "I saw people in my community getting infected with HIV/AIDS, yet there was nothing in Spanish about the disease or how to prevent it," Rincon said.
Rincon responded to the problem by developing a culturally sensitive presentation to educate Mexican Americans and other Latinos about HIV, its signs and symptoms, how it is spread, and how it can be prevented. He bought an overhead projector and traveled to restaurants, factories and churches to give his presentation. "I talked to anyone who would listen," Rincon said.
He has since expanded his awareness campaign to include other issues affecting his community, such as heart disease, diabetes and domestic violence, and has helped Latino immigrants get access to basic health care. In 2000, he founded Mixteca Organization, a nonprofit in Brooklyn, N.Y., that provides health and education programs—as well as literacy, computer and English classes and after-school programs—to thousands of Latino New Yorkers each year. "We no longer have to seek out people to help," Rincon said. "We have proven ourselves to be a trusted community partner."
For his undaunted quest to educate and support Latino immigrants in need, Rincon has been named one of 10 recipients of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Community Health Leaders Award. The award honors exceptional men and women who have overcome significant obstacles to tackle some of the most challenging health and health care problems facing their communities. Rincon received the award during a ceremony in Baltimore, Md., on November 9.
Larry McReynolds, executive director of the Lutheran Family Health Centers in Brooklyn, said that Rincon's dedication has resulted in measurable improvement in community health, especially in Brooklyn's Sunset Park neighborhood, where Mixteca is based. "Gabriel Rincon's passion for improving health outcomes for the immigrant population of Sunset Park is a tribute to his dedication and leadership at Mixteca," McReynolds said.