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Activist In The Trenches Of Urban Health

Anne M. Hamilton

March 11, 2012

Roberto Garcia left his mark in Hartford as a community organizer with a strong interest in the health of Hispanics. Although he was an artist and a trained chef, he spent his life working with drug addicts, gang members and people infected with the AIDS virus.

"People saw him as a key player in the business of substance abuse," said Edwin Rivera-Pacheco, director of Centro Renacer of Connecticut, a drug treatment facility. "He worked very hard to give people a second chance."

Garcia died Feb. 17 of a heart attack on a day off he had planned to spend with his family.

Beginning in the 1970s, Garcia was in the trenches of urban medicine. He was an outreach worker with the Hispanic Health Council, going door to door in poor neighborhoods assessing health needs. He counseled young substance abusers and drug addicts, pointing them toward treatment facilities and making arrangements for them when necessary.

In the 1980s, when AIDS was thought of as a gay man's disease, he was able to break through the stigma of homosexuality in the Hispanic community and urge young men to protect themselves and their partners and be tested for the disease. Later, as medical advances slowed the advancement of the disease, he urged them to go to clinics for treatment.

"He was one of the first in the Latino community to recognize the importance of fighting against AIDS and not people with HIV," said Tony McLendon, a former colleague.

For nearly 22 years, Garcia worked for the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, where he was a monitor of drug treatment programs.

His experience in the health field meant that he knew a lot of people, from the staff of local organizations to the board of directors, and was sought out for his expertise in helping people find the appropriate program. In 2000, he was chosen as the DMHAS Employee of the Year.

Garcia was born on March 14, 1955, in Manhattan and grew up in the Bronx. His father, Luis Rafael Garcia, was in the Merchant Marines and his mother, Luz Maria Garcia, managed a school cafeteria. He had two brothers. He was born with two club feet, which meant that as a baby, he wore casts that had to be changed weekly. He had nearly 20 operations on his legs, and didn't walk until he was 2.

Observing his mother, who in addition to cooking also was a seamstress, he learned to cook as well as sew. "The only thing he didn't learn was crochet," said his mother.

When his wife was pregnant with their first child, he sewed her maternity clothes because they couldn't afford to buy them. As a teenager, he showed his concern for others by helping the family next door, who had recently arrived from Puerto Rico, navigate life in New York.

Interested in art as a child, he attended two high schools for the arts and graduated from the High School of Art and Design in New York City. He enrolled in Queens College, with a major in political science and a goal of medical school.

Instead, he married Priscilla Acevedo, a fellow student, in 1975, and they moved to East Hartford two years later. He worked his way up from dishwasher to chef at the old Honiss' Restaurant in Hartford, went to cooking school, worked as a chef at the Ancient Mariner restaurant in Mystic, and taught cooking at A.I. Prince Technical High School.

He also got involved in social services, working as a translator for Hispanic hospital patients and helping them and the hospital staff transcend cultural differences.

With the Hispanic Health Council, he knocked on doors to find out how living in poverty affected the health of city residents. He drove around the city in a van offering to exchange needles with addicts before the city's own program began. When he learned that some Hispanics felt unwelcome in methadone clinics, Garcia interviewed them and used the data to make clinic directors aware of the problem. He worked with Latino Outreach Initiative after a spike in heroin use among Latinos, trying to encourage users to seek help.

"Latinos don't seek treatment on their own," said Jose Ortiz, the council's CEO.

Garcia had a special interest in working with young people. "He was fatherly, loving and supportive, but he didn't take a lot of stuff," said Ramon-Pacheco. "He was very firm at times, but with a loving hand. It was what the kids needed."

For many years, the Garcias lived on Park Street in Hartford and were part of a program called Always on Saturdays, a teen pregnancy program. Their door was open to young people who needed help, food, referrals to drug programs -- or just someone to care.

Roberto and Priscilla, who by that time had two young children, were de facto parents to hundreds of young people, some of whom would end up sleeping on a couch or on their porch. They would feed them spaghetti and pizza and take them on trips out of Hartford to show them another world. For teens without fathers, he was a role model, his wife said.

Garcia worked at Quirk Middle School in Hartford in a program to reduce drug use, and he worked with young gang members as a mediator. His work and volunteerism were nearly seamless, and he spent a lot of time with community groups. He helped arrange for medical students from the University of Connecticut to work with Hispanic patients and wrote a brochure, "Becoming a Puerto Rican," to try to explain some of the cultural traditions a non-Hispanic might not understand.

Together with his wife, he began Women Helping Other Women, a group that met in their house to talk about violence or drug use.

He was a co-founder in 1998 of Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery, a group that tries to put a public face on recovering addicts by encouraging them to talk publicly about their experience.

Dorian Grey Parker got to know Garcia through CCAR. "He pushed me to go to school, to get licensed," said Parker, who eventually went to college and earned two master's degrees and a counseling certificate, and is now clinical director at Centro Renacer. "He's been a friend, a colleague, a mentor."

Modest, funny and very approachable, Garcia had an easy rapport with people often shunned by the public. He freely gave out his private cellphone number, and was a fierce defender of his clients. He snapped back if someone spoke derisively of those whose lives were hobbled by drugs or alcohol.

"He had a quick anger," said a co-worker. "Sometimes he had to walk around the block."

Garcia was always on the lookout for new types of program that could help his clients. He was a good musician, a master of the trumpet, conga drums and timbales, and was hoping to get a grant to set up a drumming program for youths in recovery.

Garcia, who had three children and a grandson, had an open door policy with his friends, and he often would urge them to stay for dinner and his special empanadillas, spicy beef, olives and peppers in a pastry crust. He was direct and outspoken, but he had a playful side that came out when he was around children.

As familiar as he was with the dangers of drug use, he was low key when he was with his own children.

"He would tell me stories about what he had experienced," said his daughter Natalie Nicole, 16. "That was his way of telling me how I shouldn't. ... He never said, 'Don't ever do drugs.'"

A celebration of Garcia's life will be held from 6-8 p.m. at Our Lady of Sorrows Parish, 79 New Park Ave., Hartford, on March 13.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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