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Ethics Program Manager, Breaking the Barriers and Becoming the First

A first-generation Mexican American and a program manager for an ethics program at the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Dr. Polo Camacho was born and raised in El Paso, Texas, a border town between the United States and Mexico. Polo’s parents immigrated to America from Chihuahua, Mexico. His father became a citizen after marrying his mother in the late 70s.


For Polo, living in a border town had its unique dynamics. He described how the border between two countries seemed almost seamless. He further explained that when going into El Paso, “when you see the border, you don’t really see it because there is sort of a continuity.” The lights at night blurred the distinction reflecting the intertwined lives of the people living on both sides. Polo says, “I think that’s sort of a metaphor for how people live their lives on the border.”


As Polo grew up in El Paso, he initially, at a young age, disliked being Mexican. He wanted to distance himself from his cultural identity and assimilate into a different culture. Polo explains “there was a lot of shame, a lot of pushing away of the culture, but I think I have since embraced it.” Overtime, he experienced a shift in perspective. Moving away from El Paso made him realize the significance of his cultural heritage. Polo explains that the move made him realize that he “went from being the majority to being the minority and it felt so crazy and weird.” He started missing the food, the music, the big family gatherings, and the cultural traditions that were ingrained in his upbringing. Missing the food meant calling mom and asking her for traditional recipes. Polo said, “before I could get my mom’s enchiladas anywhere but now, I just get enchiladas."

Despite being in a new country and the external pressures of assimilation, Polo’s parents encouraged their children to speak their native language, Spanish, and were proud of their Spanish-speaking abilities. The pride of their heritage and culture stood in contrast to the experience of some other ­Chicanos who faced pressures to abandon their native language. Polo recalled facing some challenges in school due to his accent and dialect, but he constantly worked hard to improve his English skills.


The diverse and vibrant culture of El Paso became an essential part of his identity. As he began to embrace his Mexican heritage, he began learning to love himself and his background. Polo discovered the power of literature and philosophy, particularly through Chicano literature and the writings of philosophers like Gloria Anzaldúa. These sources validated his experiences and helped him understand the complexities of identity and acceptance.


Texas, California, New Mexico, and other states were once part of Mexico. This historical background shaped the experience of Polo’s great-grandparents and their changing citizenship status. Polo’s family had connections on both sides of the border. Some relatives spilt their time between New Mexico and Mexico or Texas and Mexico. Polo was born in El Paso, Texas and he shared how his parents, who married at a young age, settled there to build a family. His father, an ambitious and hardworking man, sought employment to support his family, while his parents emphasized the importance of obtaining education.


In their journey, Polo’s family placed a strong emphasis on education because they wanted him to succeed academically, understanding that education was crucial to thrive in the United States. While explaining his academic journey, Polo said that after the first year of college, he has brought his Grade Point Average (GPA) down to 1.2. He decided to work in construction but after two years, Polo knew this wasn’t the future he wanted. Despite some challenges and a period of academic struggle during his freshman year of college, Polo’s father supported him in returning to school. He regained his focus, completed his undergraduate degree in philosophy at the University of Texas at El Paso, and then pursued a Master of Arts and Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Kansas.

Polo said, “being a first-generation Mexican American trying to navigate graduate school and with really no one around you was really, really difficult.” Becoming the first in his family to pursue this educational journey and the first to receive a Ph.D. came with a share of mental health challenges. Growing up in a religious and cultural community, mental health was never openly discussed in his house. While attending graduate school, the workload became demanding, and the pressures and expectations placed on Polo as a student became immense. Polo found himself “spiraling into anxiety episodes, panic attacks and even depressive episodes.” For Polo, the most difficult thing was “going through the experience and now knowing what it was.” He further explained that it wasn’t until he “looked for therapy [that I realized] what I’m going through is a thing and it is not taboo. It is something I can manage; it is something I can treat and so working on seeing that no differently that a physical ailment.”  Therapy became a turning point in Polo’s life. He was able to learn coping mechanism, gain greater self-awareness, and develop tools to navigate challenges. Therapy helped Polo discover that others shared similar struggles and he was not alone in this journey.

Polo’s educational journey took him to various places with various experiences but his connections to his Mexican heritage remained strong. He carried cultural traditions with him, such as the aroma of roasted rice, the sound of music always played in the background, and the longing for authentic Mexican food. These traditions kept him grounded and connected to his roots, even when he found himself in different environments.

As Polo reflected on his journey, he mentioned that his academic pursuits in philosophy led him to explore topics related to identity, culture, and social justice. Now, in his professional career as the program manager for an ethics program at the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Polo dedicates himself to addressing ethical concerns in health care.


For other children of immigrants breaking down barriers and becoming the “firsts” in their families, Polo shares to keep fighting. There will be days where the fight is hard and darks. Some days “it’s really hard to see at the end of the tunnel but I believe that on those days, it’s really important to fight for a day where the skies are clear. When it’s hard, you cannot let racist incidences and systemic barriers keep you from achieving your education. Remind yourself of all those things and what you are capable of.”  


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