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Regimen Gives Latinas Taste of New Outlook


SAN DIEGO — A year ago, Maria Rubalcaba was overweight and out of shape. She never exercised, and she served her husband and three children meals that would have given the American Heart Assn. palpitations. Her typical dinners consisted of enchiladas or tacos, heavily salted and cooked in lard, with lots of flour tortillas and maybe some vegetables.

Today, the 43-year-old Rubalcaba prances vigorously through her hourlong aerobics classes three days a week at Southcrest Recreation Center in Southeast San Diego. She has lost 25 pounds, reformed her family's diet and transformed herself.

"Ever since the classes, I'm more sure of myself," Rubalcaba said, cooling down from a recent workout. "I'm a new Maria."

The "new Maria," relaxing in sweats and gray Reeboks and sporting a new stylishly short blond hairdo, said the health, nutrition and exercise classes she started eight months ago have created changes in her life that transcend physical appearance.

Adventures to Her

With her aerobics instructor, Teresa Aparicio, translating her words from Spanish, Rubalcaba said that, although the "old Maria" rarely ventured out of the house on anything other than family errands, the emerging Maria is one who frequently gets out and does things for herself. They are simple things for most people--a daily walk with a friend, visits to a community project--but for her, they are adventures.

After 15 years in the United States, she has decided to sign up for English classes.

"Now I will not miss anything!" she said.

Rubalcaba's growing independence has not gone unnoticed at home. Her children celebrate the changes, she said, but her husband is upset by them.

Will Look for Work

"At first he didn't say anything," she said. "But, little by little, he started showing me he didn't like my doing more and more things on my own and making decisions."

Last month, without consulting his wife, Emilio Rubalcaba quietly put their house up for sale. Maria said she doesn't want to move from the neighborhood where they have lived for 10 years; but when she protested, she said, he told her that, because she was not working, she had no say in the decision.

"So now I'm going to go to work," Rubalcaba said. "I'm sure I will find a job. I know I don't have to do it, but I want to."

Emilio declined to be interviewed, but the reasons for his reaction seemed obvious to some.

Situation Not Uncommon

"When a man that has always ruled the house and has been the boss and the only head of the family loses power a little, he doesn't like that," said Sarah Morlett, who has worked as a family counselor for 16 years at the Chicano Federation. "The minute he starts feeling threatened, then he's going to uproot the family and take off somewhere else."

Although Morlett said she has seen many situations like the Rubalcabas' end in divorce, Rubalcaba said she has no fears about her and her husband's ability to work out their problems. She said that, after looking at houses in other neighborhoods, her husband may be reconsidering the decision himself.

Bea Roppe, the Mexican-American health educator who spearheaded Por La Vida ("For Life"), the health education program responsible for the changes in Rubalcaba, sympathizes with the discomfort her husband may be feeling, and noted that the changes are dramatic ones for both.

"Neither of them has role models for being different," Roppe said. "It's hard. . . . but this isn't a dress rehearsal, this is Maria's time to live."

Por La Vida, a joint project of UC San Diego and San Diego State University, addresses a number of health problems prevalent among Latinos in the United States. Because of their diet, nutrition is a prime concern.

According to program dietitian Joan Rupp, 45% of Latino women are obese, contrasted with 29% of Anglo women. She said diabetes, a disease exacerbated by obesity, is 2 to 3 1/2 times more prevalent among Latinos.

"If someone is genetically inclined to be diabetic, obesity can trigger it," she said.

Rupp also noted that, although the incidence of high blood pressure appears to be slightly lower among Latinos, they have significantly less awareness of the problem than do Anglos. For example, a 1982-1984 study by the National Center for Disease Statistics showed that only 54% of Latinos were aware of hypertension, compared with studies that showed awareness in 65% to 90% of Anglos.

Traditional Efforts Lacking

Por La Vida decided to focus on the elements of Latino culture: foods high in fat and salt, as well as poor exercise habits. Funded as a pilot project by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the program tested an innovative method for offering health and nutrition information to the Latino community.

Traditional efforts to provide health information to Latinos have been limited to translating English-language materials into Spanish, and they are notoriously ineffective, Roppe said.

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