Marcos Moreno is a public health advocate and medical researcher. Marcos is a Native American, who is a member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe from the Pascua Yaqui Reservation in southern Arizona. Marcos is the first person from the Pascua Yaqui Reservation to graduate from an Ivy League University. During his undergraduate career, Marcos was recognized for his dedication to his studies by being asked to participate in advanced laboratory research into both neurological reward pathways as well as possible therapy candidates for drug addiction. Marcos plays an active role in public health work outside of his research both with his tribe and around the world. For instance, in 2013 Marcos took part in St. John’s University’s founding chapter of the Global Medical Brigades that takes trips to rural West Africa. In 2014 Marcos took part in a public health project on the Pascua Yaqui Reservation aimed at assessing the Pascua Yaqui Tribe’s health department while aiming to improve standards of living on the tribe’s reservation.
I chose Marcos because he really embodies what an activist on the rise looks like. I think that other people can relate to work most when it includes both subjective and objective dimensions. Marcos does exactly this because he has learned/is learning information relevant to many in the neuroscience field but always brings his findings back to where he came from. It is important to recognize those who have made life-long contributions to their communities. At the same time, those at earlier stages or just beginning their efforts deserve attention too. Unlike many of classic readings in Native American Studies that are based on a recollection of past events, Marcos’ memories are of more recent events and his reflections are on the current situation.
Bovell: You spent the first two decades of your life living on the Pascua Yaqui Reservation in southern Arizona. You are now a medical student at UND-School of Medicine and Health Sciences. How would you describe the key differences between living on a reservation and living at Cornell? What are the main differences in everyday cultural and social norms? How do the very different racial compositions of the two places manifest themselves? As you begin to live outside Native American spaces what fundamental changes (if any) have you been forced to undergo? To exist outside your reservation do you think you have to conform to the broader non-Native American norms and therefore abandon Native American practices?
Moreno: In short, I would say going to college increased my standard of living substantially. To be honest, when I first got to college I remember I felt like I had all of a sudden become very wealthy (at least what I thought was wealthy at the time). I know it may sound kind of silly now, but back then it was a pretty big change to go from not having my own room or bed at my home on the rez, to all of a sudden having my own very nice room (and bed) at an Ivy League University. I was very thankful for the opportunity Cornell gave me and I remember just wanting to make sure that they didn’t regret doing so.
As far as everyday differences between Cornell and my reservation, obviously there were a lot. I think one of the biggest general things I noticed right away was just how tightly organized things were at Cornell versus my reservation. Part of me liked the structure it provided, but another part of me disliked how uptight people and things seemed at first. It was very different to go from a place like my reservation that didn’t even have (or didn’t enforce) things like traffic laws, gun laws, or laws against underage drinking, to then be at a place like Cornell where a couple of minor citations could get you kicked out of school. I knew things would be different, so I guess I wasn’t all that surprised, but it still was an adjustment.
As far as racial composition, I’d say Cornell was actually very diverse compared to my reservation. Whereas everyone was pretty much cut from the same mold on my reservation (with me and my brother being the two palest kids around), Cornell was a place where people were literally from all corners of the world. It was the first time I’d ever had any real interaction with people who were not either Native, White, Black or Mexican. I think I learned more in my first year in New York alone just about different cultures and countries than I did in my 18 years prior; for the first time in my life I was meeting people from China, Chile, Japan, Burma, India, Nepal, the Philippines, you name it. Learning firsthand from these people about their cultures was probably one of my favorite Cornell experiences.
Living outside of my Native community, yes, I’ve had to undergo some changes, but I kind of like to think of my time in the mainstream US as an extended visit in a different country. Starting when I was in college, I really gained an affinity for travelling. You learn so much from it and the cool thing is you can choose to adopt certain aspects of a culture or not to, so long as you just respect the culture and the place you are on your visit. I guess I’m a little biased because I like learning about different cultures and I like experiencing new things, which isn’t the case for everyone, so I can see why many Natives (my father being one of them) are reluctant to leave what is familiar. Not being on the reservation obviously can be difficult because I can’t be home for every ceremony that I took part in as a kid, but, at the same time, it does make me appreciate the moments I am back on the reservation for those things. I know it will always be there for me to go back to and given the integral role the reservation had in making me the man that I am, I don’t feel like that part of me can ever really be taken away.
Bovell: What values from your cultural background and upbringing contribute to your everyday and more long-term decision-making processes? Can you provide some specific examples? Is there any specific life experience or personal relationship that has influenced you to do the work you are now doing?
Moreno: Culturally I would say my tribe is very prideful, some might even say stubborn. Historically I think much of that stems from the fact that my tribe essentially spent 400 years resisting the Spanish conquests of Northern Mexico and southern Arizona; the fighting only officially stopped in the 1920s, 300+ years after most Native tribes in the area, including the Mayans and Aztecs, had been wiped out. As a result, I think a big thing that permeates many aspects of our culture is a very strong sense of pride; it can be a positive attribute if you handle it in the right way, but it certainly has its downsides as well. One way that I’ve seen this manifested in me was in my previous inability to ask for help. The first time I really noticed it was when I was applying for college. Neither of my parents went to college, so I was very naïve about the process and everything it entailed, but rather than ask people for help, or even for information, I was very guarded against letting people know that there were all these things that I didn’t know. I spent so much time on my own researching basic things, when a lot of my questions would have been easily answered by a high school guidance counselor or a teacher. Looking back, I know now how silly it was to feel so bad for not knowing what I thought were basic things. In reality, it’s a very complex process that everyone struggles with. Fortunately, everything worked out, but if I could do things over again, I’d probably at least let a teacher or counselor read over my application essays.
Bovell: Can you describe the academic work that you are now doing? Is it informed by political or activist work that you do beyond the academy? Do you envision your research as a form of intellectual activism? Why or why not?
Moreno: As of now, I split time between medical school and as a researcher in a lab examining neurological changes in children born with fetal alcohol syndrome. I wouldn’t say the work I do on this end is intellectual activism per say, however my career interests have been shaped heavily by my experiences with my tribe, so I can see why people might think that. Most of my research both past and present has centered on addiction (at both the physiological and psychological level), and child cognitive development. I study addiction because historically within my community and many Native American communities, drugs and alcohol are a major issue, and most of the time these issues spill over and effect vulnerable populations like children, who of course are my second area of research.
The area of my work that was a little more activist in nature was a Public/Community Health Assessment that I worked on for my tribe’s reservation back in 2014. Basically, we surveyed the community, gathered population data, and statistics on standards of living, employment, etc., data which we later used to write multiple grants that funded vastly improved health and community facilities on the reservation, roads, expanded plumbing and improved waste management. This was a project that obviously struck close to home for me because all my family still lives on the reservation, and it is still in many ways the only home I’ve ever known. (see attached power point if you’re interested)
Bovell: When you consider the state of your and other Native American communities, how would you diagnose their current situation? What are the primary changes you hope to bring about in them through your current and future work? How do you intend to achieve those aims? Do you have important partners and allies? If so, who are they and how have they emerged as trusted collaborators?
Moreno: It’s hard to speak for all Native communities because the situation will vary a lot from tribe to tribe, however, generally speaking, Native American communities are quite a bit behind the rest of the US. Many of the issues within Native communities are byproducts of extreme poverty (Pascua Yaqui Reservation median household income in 2009 was $12,000), and, as a result, you see many issues in Native communities that you see in lower income communities throughout the US, albeit a bit more pronounced (Pascua Yaqui Reservation high school graduation rate is 24%). If I had to put a label/ diagnosis on Native communities like my own, I would say that we are still very much in the developing stage, but are starting to show signs of improvement. For example, in my own tribe and others, sentiments toward western education are slowly changing and, as a result, we’re seeing more people graduate from high school and many even starting to look at higher education options and secondary training. We’re a long way from where education advocates like myself or others would like, but improvement is promising.
In terms of the primary changes I’d like to see, I think getting Native communities up to speed with the American mainstream lower income groups would be a significant improvement. Natives often occupy a weird space in America because while we are technically American citizens, tribal reservations can often provide a very restrictive, yet semi-comforting “bubble” of sorts. For the Natives living on reservations, it becomes a separation from the rest of America not only physically, but psychologically. It’s restrictive in the sense that reservations largely limit the opportunities available to the people bound to them, however because pretty much everyone who occupies the reservation is restricted, there is a sort of “blissful ignorance” phenomenon that occurs. Most people don’t fully understand some of the things they might be missing out on, because when nobody has those “things”, they can be hard to conceptualize. I think the more people like myself venture out into the mainstream US, and normalize things like higher education, the more people in our own communities will realize how much more is out there for them. It then becomes the responsibility for people like myself to essentially help this process, building that metaphorical bridge between our reservation and the outside world.
Bovell: Are you familiar with the work of any other Native American activists? What is it about their work that would lead you to define it this way? Are there any indigenous activists (in the U.S. or globally) with whom you hope to ally in the future?
Moreno: In 2016 I was fortunate to gain access to a very cool network of people that has a very big hand in Native American activism. The Udall Scholars is basically a group of students selected as either rising seniors or juniors in college who have made contributions to Health Care, Government/ Policy, or Environmentalism. In addition, many scholars also engage in many philanthropic and public service causes, with a good portion of people being dedicated to Native American activism. Of them all, a leader I am looking forward to working with in the future is a good friend of mine, Victor Lopez-Carmen. He, like me, was a Udall Scholar in 2016 and is currently a Fulbright Scholar doing a year long research project in Sydney, Australia with local Aborigine populations. He’s an avid indigenous rights activist who has even spoken at U.N. conferences regarding Native American issues. Given our close relationship formed over our time together in Ithaca, New York (Victor attended Ithaca College), I can see us doing great work together down the road. Victor also plans to apply to medical school when he returns to the US, so something tells me we will almost certainly cross paths again.
Bovell: Are there forms of personal fulfillment, whether the meaningfulness of advocating for justice or instances of, self- actualization, that fuel and sustain your drive to do the work that you do? Do you think bridging medical research and political advocacy can happen relatively easily or are their tensions between your professional and political aims? Do you envision using the skills of medical research, once acquired, to advance your larger advocacy goals? What unique possibilities for action will be opened by the training you are currently receiving?
Moreno: A lot of the fulfillment I receive from my work is intrinsic; I am pursuing work in a field I love and have wanted to be a part of for a long time. That said, many of the specific interests I have within the field of medicine, particularly those involving underserved populations, obviously developed because of experiences with my community. The reservation has its flaws no doubt, but it’s my home, and I can’t in good conscience just turn away from my community when it’s in obvious need of my help. I always said I wanted to return home to the village that helped raise me, and, as it stands, that’s what I plan to do. So yes, in short, my community is a major factor in the work that I do.
As far as bridging medicine and political advocacy, I think it can be difficult, however I’d say my tribe and I have a very good rapport and an excellent working relationship through our past dealings and projects together. In addition, I think the biggest thing is that my tribe trusts me a great deal, in large part because of my history in the community prior to me leaving for college. I was part of tribal ceremonies, attended tribal schools, and still have most of my family living on the reservation. It just reinforces to them that our community means a lot to me, and I think it’s a big reason why our tribal council and elders have trusted me so much through the years. It’s my hope that, as I learn and grow more, this continues.
The obvious opportunity that will arise from my training will come in the form of me bringing back a valuable medical skillset to my community. I’ll be the first person from the reservation to receive their MD. I’m also hoping it will spur younger generations to pursue forms of higher education, particularly in the sciences. I’m hoping I can help foster interests in those fields, as well as others. If I can do that, then we can multiply the positive impact made on our community by increasing our human-power through improved education and skill sets.
Elizabeth Bovell recently graduated from the University of Connecticut with a double major in Political Science and Sociology. She is currently working as a paralegal in New York City at Mayer Brown. In the future she hopes to work for the U.S. Department of Trade and Commerce with the aim of regulating a fair and equal system for both her own race and other people of color.