Gabriel Perez is currently a fourth-year dental student at the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine in Boston and Hispanic Dental Association trustee. He is originally from a small rural town in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. Mr. Perez and his family migrated to New Jersey at the age of 11. He earned his bachelors of science in biology from Stockton University in Galloway, New Jersey.
Mr. Perez answered questions about his experiences, the Hispanic Dental Association and how being born with a cleft lip and palate impacted his life and eventual decision to choose dentistry as a profession.
How did being born with a cleft lip and palate affect your early life and eventual decision to pursue dentistry as a profession?
Being born with a cleft lip and palate was difficult for me and my family. Access to care in Mexico was scarce and the care I received was limited. It was not the painful procedures or the 3-hour long rides to the city for my dental specialists’ appointments that convinced me to pursue dentistry. Dentistry had a tremendous impact on my health, physically and mentally. I remember being an insecure young boy afraid to smile, laugh or even talk due to my speech impediment. I matured quickly for my age due to the hardships I faced from the lack of awareness and resources for such birth defects in my community. The support from my family and dental providers helped my overall health improve as well as my self-confidence. I cherish the impact dentistry has had on me since I was a child and have always wanted to give back the same kindness to others. Becoming a dentist was an easy decision to make after my and my family’s experiences.
Describe the area where you grew up.
I am originally from a small rural town called Teococuilco in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. Many people still speak Zapotec, and our indigenous roots play a major role in our culture. Growing up, we had one dentist for a town of about 2,000 people. Oral care was not very well emphasized, however, [though] I do remember members of our community coming to our schools to teach the children how to properly brush their teeth.
How can you raise the importance of oral care within Hispanic communities?
I believe representation of Hispanics/Latinxs in oral health care is key in raising the profile of oral care within our own community. Hispanics/Latinxs account for about 20% of the overall population in the U.S.; however, we account for about 7% of dentists in the country. Raising the profile of oral care within Hispanics is one of the main goals of the Hispanic Dental Association. Efforts to improve this are underway through community service by the National Hispanic Dental Association as well as by our Hispanic Student Dental Association chapters in 60 dental schools. The Research Committee is also focused in highlighting major problems and promoting solutions. In 2020, the Journal of the Hispanic Dental Association was created and released its first issue. The journal is the first bilingual (Spanish and English) scientific journal for Hispanic oral health in the country. The journal is meant for all members of the public at large, not just for oral health professionals. I continue to support these initiatives and many others, all for the benefit of Hispanics/Latinx people in the US, Canada and as far as we may reach.
What influenced your decision to attend Tufts?
I had a hard time finding mentors whom I could relate to throughout my pre-dental education. I am the first member of my family to attend dental school. I knew that wherever I went, I wanted to have mentors who could understand where I came from and offer resources to guide me towards achieving my goal of helping underrepresented communities. During my interview at Tufts School of Dental Medicine, I met Aidee Nieto-Herman, D.M.D., assistant professor in the department of periodontology. Dr. Nieto-Herman is originally from Venezuela and for decades has worked to improve Hispanic oral health and promote dentistry as a career for minority groups in the U.S. Dr. Herman is a past president of the Hispanic Dental Association, past president of the Massachusetts Hispanic Dental Association, and president and founder of the Tufts, Harvard, and Boston University Hispanic Dental Association chapters. I was very impressed by her amazing work but also by her kindness and how welcomed she made me feel. Over the years, Dr. Nieto-Herman and I have worked on multiple research projects, community service events and mentorship for internationally trained dentists as well as pre-dental students. I feel very supported by my community at Tufts, specifically Jeanette Sabir-Holloway, D.D.S., associate dean for diversity and inclusion, who has also enabled me to go beyond dental education into leadership opportunities for diversity and inclusion.
Why are you involved with the Hispanic Dental Association?
The mission statement for HDA is, “As the leading voice for Hispanic Oral Health, we provide service, education-research, advocacy, and leadership for all health care professionals, to promote overall health of the Hispanic/Latinx and underrepresented communities.” This is a mission that resonates with me and I wish to contribute to. I am a person who identifies with underserved and underrepresented communities. I have first-handedly experienced lack of access to dental and medical care services. Lack of access to care is a major barrier for Hispanic/Latinx communities here in the U.S. [and] the disparities are even greater in many Latin American countries. This is one of the main reasons why I decided to pursue dentistry. I am very happy to contribute towards a more focused and necessary goal in dentistry: [to address] the disparities affecting Hispanic/Latinx oral health.
Describe your role as student trustee for the Hispanic Dental Association.
One of the main responsibilities for the student trustee includes serving as chair of the Student Regional Planning Committee. The Student Regional is a national student conference for student members as well as non-members. Every year, one of the HSDA chapters hosts the Student Regional in association with their respective dental school. As student trustee, I oversee the planning and execution of the event. This year, the Student Regional was hosted by the University of Washington School of Dentistry HSDA Chapter. I had the opportunity to work with great student leaders of the University of Washington School of Dentistry HSDA chapter, their faculty advisor and many other local supporters of the chapter. The presence of heritage, culture and tradition was evident throughout our conference. It was truly a pleasure to help organize this event for my colleagues throughout the country and for all other attendees. The 2022 Student Regional was an amazing experience. Every minority oral health profession student and allies deserve to experience an event like this.