Each year, National Hispanic Heritage Month is observed from September 15 to October 15, to pay tribute to the generations of Hispanic Americans who have positively influenced and enriched the United States through achievements and contributions to society. This is the final installment in a series of blog posts celebrating the Hispanic heritages of Indiana University School of Medicine students.
Meet Doriann Alcaide Amador, Class of 2024
Growing up on the same street as her grandparents, cousins and extended family in Camuy, Puerto Rico, Doriann Alcaide Amador never would have thought of leaving her island home. Then came Hurricane Maria. The worst storm to hit Puerto Rico in its recorded history, Maria struck on September 20, 2017, claiming about 3,000 lives and causing $90 billion in damages.
On the night of the storm, Alcaide was startled awake to the sound of debris crashing against the shuttered windows of her home. The fierce storm moved slowly, unleashing torrential rain and high winds for more than 30 hours.
“It was devastating,” said Alcaide, now a second-year medical student at Indiana University School of Medicine. “Our government wasn’t prepared. Everything was completely shut down for months. I had experienced hurricanes before, but definitely not that big.”
Alcaide had just started her second year of college, studying biology with aspirations of going on to medical school. Without power and water, her college shut down.
Her family’s home was not significantly damaged, but it remained without power for six months, forcing essential appliances to be run by generator. Rather than halt her studies indefinitely, Alcaide decided to transfer to Binghamton University in New York.
Although she had learned English in school, her sudden immersion in American culture was jarring. For the first time in her life, she identified as a member of a minority population. She felt isolated and missed being with family.
Alcaide thought about returning to Puerto Rico for medical school, but strikes and shutdowns at government-run universities there were causing havoc for students. Navigating the admissions process alone, she applied to several United States medical schools and was thrilled to receive acceptance from Indiana University—although she’d never set foot in this state.
When she came to Indianapolis, Alcaide was surprised by the size of the Hispanic community and pleased to discover several Latino supermarkets and restaurants in the area. At IU School of Medicine, she quickly connected with Assistant Professor of Medicine Sylk Sotto-Santiago, EdD, MPA, MPS, a native of Puerto Rico who co-teaches the Foundations of Clinical Practice course offered in Spanish.
“As a first-generation student and faculty member who moved to the States at a similar age, I know what it means to navigate being alone in a state far away from home,” Sotto said. “In addition, the circumstances and reasons for leaving Puerto Rico at the time Doriann did, post-hurricane Maria, is a bonding matter that probably only those who experienced it or have family on the island can understand. Here we treat each other as a large Puerto Rican family that happens to be in Indiana.”
Alcaide connected with Hispanic students through the Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA) and with a wider group of peers through her position as class representative to the Wellness Coalition at IU School of Medicine.
“That has helped build my support system here,” she said.
Not to say she doesn’t still miss her family in Puerto Rico: “Every weekend, they’re doing something like a cookout, and I wish I was there.”
Alcaide goes home on every school break, but she is undecided about whether she will return to Puerto Rico after getting her MD or remain in the States—where she sees a need for more Hispanic physicians.
“In the United States, whenever I see a patient who speaks Spanish, we have an automatic connection,” said Alcaide, who is in IU School of Medicine’s ENLACE program, a four-year medical education curriculum focusing on Hispanic and Latinx health care.
United by food, music and cultural pride, people from Puerto Rico are Boricuas no matter where they live, Sotto said. Alcaide knows her character has been strengthened by her experiences and her heritage.
“People from Puerto Rico have this very hardworking, resilient vibe,” she said. “We’ve been through so much with the hurricane. Then we overthrew the governor with protests and went through a period with lots of earthquakes and COVID came—just thing after thing—but despite all that, everyone is able to come together as a community and help each other out.
“My heritage has influenced everything about my life.”
Sharing cultural traditions: Puerto Rican custards
Puerto Rico is known for having the longest holiday season in the world. La Navidad (Christmas) traditions and celebrations begin right after Thanksgiving and extend through mid-January. That means lots of festive, family gatherings—and food!
“I couldn’t imagine spending Christmas anywhere else,” said Doriann Alcaide Amador. “For every holiday, we get together and have a party. It’s the best!”
For Alcaide, the highlight of the holiday meal is always dessert. She can’t get enough of Puerto Rican style flan or her grandma’s majarete (rice-flour custard).
“It’s soooo good!” she said. “Every Christmas, she makes a bunch, and we just eat so much!”
Want to try making Puerto Rican custard desserts? Check out this recipe for Puerto Rican Rice Pudding (majarete) from Nestle El Major Nido, or this flan recipe from Sense & Edibility.