Hispanic nurses have new statewide network

Founders behind new chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses envision a powerful community of support

This story was published in the Winter 2024 issue of The Washington Nurse.

34 illustration
Rebecca Allen, treasurer of WA-NAHN (left) and Genevieve Crystal Aguilar, president-elect.

The newly formed Washington State Chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses (WA-NAHN) was created to elevate, inspire, and support nurses with Latin American roots. The founders of the new chapter envision a powerful support network for Latinx nurses in Washington state.

While there was a Western Washington chapter until 2022, the new chapter extends statewide.

The nurses who formed the new chapter navigated many barriers, including funding, a lack of support, and feelings of isolation. Now, they are on a mission to bring Latinx communities together and support more nurses from this community to enter nursing.

Silvia Bowker, MHA, BA, ADN, president of the new chapter, is director for hospice at Providence Home and Community Care in Spokane.

She said growing up in the disadvantaged town of California City, California, gave her the desire to be a servant leader and role model for other young people. Silvia is Hispanic, and English is a second language. She didn’t start to speak English until age 5.

In high school, she asked a school counselor about being a nurse and was told, “You don’t need to do that. You don’t need to go to college.”

Bowker said that she was determined to help Latinx communities thrive and to be the resource she didn’t have growing up. She started working at age 14 to help support the family and didn’t see a healthcare provider unless absolutely necessary because her family didn’t have health insurance.

Starting the Washington statewide chapter of NAHN with other driven nurses is part of her mission to support other Latino healthcare workers in their communities.

Bowker is also a founding board member of the National Association of Latino Healthcare Executives and a member of the Washington State chapter of the American College of Healthcare Executives, where she serves on the DEI and Women’s Leadership committees.

Bowker received her associate degree in nursing from Walla Walla Community College, her bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Washington State University, and her master’s degree in healthcare administration from the University of Washington.

Genevieve Crystal Aguilar, PhD student, MPA, BA, BSN, is the president elect. She grew up in El Paso, Texas, across the border from Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, where everything was spoken in two languages.

She said that, growing up, few in her family had great healthcare. Her parents didn’t have dental insurance despite working full time. And she has an elder family member who lives with a deep distrust of authorities, is undocumented, and has lost vision in one eye.

Aguilar said that when she was a nursing student at Seattle University, she was the only Latina in her cohort.

When she brought up issues of race and diversity, she said she didn’t get any response to her questions of where to go for resources, and she felt alone. The Western Washington chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses was her community.

“I clung to those folks. They understood Latinos and health disparities. This was my place to connect. Without NAHN, I don’t know how I would have survived.”

Aguilar is a pediatric nurse at Seattle Children’s Hospital. However, her job is teaching nursing at Heritage University on the Yakama Nation in Toppenish, as part of a collaboration between the two entities.

For her, WA-NAHN is about giving Latinx nurses a voice and increasing their representation in nursing leadership.

“We want to be at the table where policies are getting changed,” she said. “Real change is to change the system, and we need to inspire others to do that and address our issues.”

She said these issues include supporting migrant workers, eliminating barriers to interpretation and translation, and trusting the healthcare system not to be xenophobic.

“How can we have more upstream approaches to manage Latino health? That is the big vision of who we are,” she said.

Aguilar has a master’s in public and international affairs, a master’s in urban and regional planning, a bachelor’s in chicana/o studies, another bachelor’s in urban studies, and a BSN. She said nursing was a second career in advocacy, community organizing, and policy work. She is now working on a PhD in nursing science at the University of Washington School of Nursing.

Rebecca Allen, MN, BSN, the treasurer at WA-NAHN, is from El Salvador. Her parents emigrated to Canada during the civil war in the 1980s.

She said she comes from a background where family members did not have documents and slipped through the healthcare system and had vastly different outcomes in quality of life.

Allen is a full-time tenured professor of nursing at Green River College. Recently, she took nursing students to an elementary school in Kent that had many K–5 Spanish-speaking students. She said three little boys were so excited when she spoke Spanish to them; one told her he had just come from Venezuela.

Allen said this is why there needs to be more nurses with Latin American roots.

“This positive experience is so valuable,” she said.

Allen said one of the things holding back more Latinx nurses is that there is no clear path for undocumented students.

Former President Barack Obama created a program in 2012 without Congressional approval, known as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), which allowed children who arrived in the U.S. illegally to delay being deported. Former President Donald Trump eliminated the program in 2017.

Another program, known as the Dream Act, was a bipartisan legislative initiative to legalize undocumented students (called Dreamers) who came to the United States when they were underage. It also provided an expeditious path to American citizenship. The initiative was introduced in 2001 and has been reintroduced several times but has not passed.

Allen said another issue affecting Latinx students is that the quality of science education is not as good for people in poorer communities.

“It’s not their fault,” she said. “It’s institutions that are not equal and do not provide them with what they need.”

She said she wants WA-NAHN to be the support for aspiring nurses who worry about educational barriers and the cost of school.

“We can provide the support and give them the reason to continue. We want them to know there is so much more at the other end.”W

Allen received her master’s in nursing from the University of Washington and her BSN from Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia, Canada.