Joshua Beltran

Joshua Beltran is a clinical research coordinator at MetroHealth’s Center for Reducing Health Disparities. He currently lives in Cleveland, where he was born to a mother from Guyana and a father from the Philippines.

Below is a transcript, edited for length and clarity, of a conversation between Josh, Ruth Chang (creative director at Midstory) and Logan Sander (editorial director at Midstory) and Sam Chang (president of Midstory) on February 7, 2023. The transcript is representative of a subjective and fluid conversation at a specific moment in time and should be read as such. This project also includes many individuals whose first language is not English; these transcripts prioritize the integrity of the interviewees’ expression over grammatical correctness. Midstory assumes no responsibility for any errors, omissions or inaccuracies. All of the views and opinions expressed only represent Joshua Beltran as an individual and not The Center for Reducing Health Disparities, MetroHealth Medical System, nor Case Western Reserve University as a whole.

Ruth Chang (RC): Tell me, how do you identify your ethnicity? 

Joshua Beltran (JB): Asian. There’s just no way right around it. I identify as Asian. I’m half Guyanese, and half Filipino, so it all roots back to the same spot.

RC: Okay. And where did you grow up?

JB: I grew up in mostly all different parts of Cleveland, Old Brooklyn. But it’s kind of a mishmash, because we lived in Cleveland, near Old Brooklyn, but I went to grade school in Parma Heights. Then I  moved to Avon for high school and lived there for years until I moved back to Cleveland.

RC: Can you describe a little bit about those years of what your childhood was like? Maybe that can stem a little bit into your parent’s heritage?

JB: My dad’s Filipino, and my mom’s Guyanese. So ironically, they’re two very different backgrounds, but they’re also very similar. Overall, for the family, we were lower income; we didn’t have a lot growing up. But at the same time, like big families on both sides. My parents split up when I was eight. So then after that, I mostly just lived with my mom. My mom’s Hindu, and my dad’s Catholic, so I only went to Catholic school per his request. And I just stayed there because that was where all my friends were. Then [my mom] got together with my stepdad and he’s Jewish. I’ve got a half-brother that’s Jewish. So it’s a really, really interesting household altogether.

RC: Can you share a little bit about what it means to be Guyanese and Filipino? Like your ethnic background? 

JB: Yeah, sure. So, it’s always been confusing, because I tend to usually shorten it to Indian for a lot of people, but it really is its own culture. Guyanese — I like to think that it’s like a very Caribbean India if I could really put it that [way]. It’s a lot of big parties and music, but with a lot of roots from many other [cultures]. There’s curry for the food. Most of my family on my mom’s side is Hindu, so there’s big Hindu weddings that last [for] days. But they’ve got their own nuances that really separate them from Trinidadians who have a very similar culture, but there’s again a different sort of nuances.  

RC: When asked, “What are you? Or where are you from?” How would you answer it?

JB: So if you ask where I’m from or what I am, it depends on who’s asking. If I know that it’s someone I probably won’t have an extended conversation with, nowadays, I’ll definitely say Filipino. And I’ll say Indian just to sort of save time. Because it’s hard to explain. Because Guyana is located in South America and then usually when I say that, I’m prefaced with “Oh, are you of Latino descent? And I’m like, ”No, it’s like the West Indies.” It’s a whole thing. So, usually, in a way to save time in the end, I shorten it to Indian, depending on the person. I used to not even answer Filipino on stuff before just because when I was growing up, people didn’t know where the Philippines were either, from all the kids I went to school with.

RC: So what sorts of food and or language or heritage [did your household identify with]?

JB: So, ironically, though, despite all that, we’re a very American household. And a lot of it has to do with the way that my parents were, because on one hand, if you look at it on paper, I’m first generation born in America, and there’s a lot of stories that people think about when you say, “Oh, I have immigrant parents.” But the thing is, my parents emigrated when they were both teenagers here. So they grew up getting Americanized. So as far as food goes in the household, my mom’s the only person in her family that doesn’t know how to make traditional dishes, unfortunately. But at other gatherings, outside of that, it’s I guess a lot of curries or a lot of that type of food from India. Or, it’s a little different. We call stuff different names than they call stuff. Their curry is a little bit different in terms of texture and consistency and stuff like that. And on my dad’s side, there’s a lot of pork dishes and it’s a big thing with them — whole pigs roasted and stuff like that. But I didn’t experience too much of that. Just because [of how] the whole living situation was.

RC: What if someone asks you what your favorite dish was, regardless where it’s from, what would you say?

JB: From family-wise, favorite dish? It’s honestly McDonald’s, I hate to admit it. But it’s like … My favorite food is probably McDonald’s only because there’s a lot of nostalgia tied to it, too. It was quick meals or my dad would take me after we dropped my mom off for work or picked her up from work, or stuff like that. Similarly, my mom, if she was working two jobs, we didn’t have a lot of time, or if I had to be at basketball or something, it was that. So, I love it because it does taste good, but it also just has a lot of nostalgia for me.

RC: When did you first perceive your own ethnicity and how this might be linked to your early school years?

JB: Well, actually, I think I first perceived my ethnicity even earlier than school. Coming from two very different backgrounds, depending on what family I’m with. Because on my dad’s side, I don’t know how to speak Tagalog, for example. But they all do to each other. So, I already feel kind of like an outsider there sometimes. And then pretty notably on the other side, too. Guyanese people like to stick within the community of Guyanese people when they marry. My mom was a little bit of an outlier when she married someone outside of that. So, just already looking even the slightest bit different because my dad’s Filipino, made me aware that I’m already different within my own family. Then that got compounded when I got to grade school. And like I said, the school is located in Parma Heights, which has a notably pretty high Polish and Irish population. And so it’s pretty noticeable there.

RC: Can you talk a little bit about how your experiences led [you] to seek for more meaning, perhaps through the work that you’re doing today at the Center for Reduced Disparities.?

JB: Sure. So, growing up with the families that I had, and because of the lower socioeconomic status, there’s a lot of obviously living paycheck to paycheck and not always taking care of your health. It’s always kind of an aftermath. It’s a lot of work until something happens. And then you try to figure out what to do after the fact. A lot of long-running diseases running [on] both sides of my family, stuff like diabetes, heart disease, breast cancer — a lot of stuff that many of my family members had to deal with in the aftermath. I never liked dealing with it that way. I always prefer […] setting yourself up for success. And preventative health is one of those things that I’m really dead set on, where I don’t like having to worry about my diabetes after it’s happened. I want to try to avoid it as much as I can. And that’s a lot of starting off with better diets, better exercise routines or just having exercise routines in the first place. So yeah, it’s a lot of stuff like that, [of] just seeing it growing up and not liking the predicaments that [it] would put family members in from a health aspect, but also from a financial aspect, because then it becomes this added stress of how to deal with it — versus if you eliminate it from the possibility of options, it’s a lot less stress.

RC: I know there’s probably research about this, but in terms of those minority populations, are there disparities related to health?

JB: That’s the thing. I don’t think there’s been a ton of research done in regards to Asian culture in general with health disparities in America — not that I’ve seen. But I would say definitely, that in itself was the disparity:, there is not enough research done for Guyanese or for Filipinos. That is already a disparity. 

RC: You did write a blog piece on the Center’s website that addresses the history of race and disease. And how’s that not something new. What was the message that you took from the research that you did?

JB: So the biggest thing, I think, is gonna actually be with a lot of minorities, but especially with Asians where — a lot of that piece I wrote dealt with talking about Asians [being] seen as a model minority, “one of the good ones” (It’s not something I like saying — it doesn’t even feel right saying it right now), but the hidden message behind it was that that goodwill gets changed in an instant when the majority wants to work to point blame and when people are scared. 

That’s another thing – I’ve always been pretty acutely aware of the sort of different cultural roots of Asian backgrounds compared to the European majority. It’s a little tangential, but for example, I’m a big World War II history buff, and one thing you’ll notice in a lot of history with that is, that there’s a lot more sympathy for Germany versus Japanese things because a lot of Americans fighting, some of them even had cultural roots in Germany. And it’s that difference, where it’s a lot easier to see the Japanese as the enemy. And it’s a similar thing when I wrote that piece, where it’s that lack of cultural knowledge and trying to understand that it’s easier to put the blame and I can see people feeling less guilty about doing it that’s like, “Hey, we don’t understand that culture. And this is how we view it.”

RC: Can you talk a little bit about the survey work or the community, what was the word — the research that you had sent me was talking about community, using the community to help convey like signs? How does that sort of tie into your — I want to hear your perspective of why it’s important for the communities to be involved. 

JB: So yeah, the most recent research project I completed was part of this study that utilized community members as journal reviewers for medical journals. And the idea was that we would send these community members these journal articles that are up for review. And they would be part of the reviewing process to [decide] whether or not it gets published, and that you got treated an equal stature with the rest of the scientific reviewers who are mostly like doctors and PhDs and MDs. And, treated with equal weight, and whether or not something deserves to be published, and then make an actual impact on how that manuscript changes in that process, like if something’s not clear… And I like to think that all this is just helping them bridge – because there’s a pretty big gap when people think about it with your care providers and the people that they’re providing the care for. For me, it’s also about health literacy, like people understanding what’s going on when it comes to their health outcomes.

Logan Sander (LS):  Is there a Filipino or Guyanese community around here? Did your mom have friends in the area? Were they of a similar background? Do you have a community here outside of your immediate family? 

JB: Actually, initially when it comes to the communities around here and the Guyanese community because it’s a bit of a yes and a bit of no, whether there is one that’s not family. The interesting thing, though, about the Guyanese community is that it really likes to stick together — and it’s weird because even if we weren’t family before, then a lot of people got married into it. They have one church that they all go to, and that’s where they all gather. And that’s the sort of center for the Guyanese community. So outside of that, it’s hard to tell where my family really ends.

LS: Are there places — whether they’re grocery stores, or restaurants, or community centers — where the Guyanese or Filipino population gather or hang out?

JB: So, interestingly enough, there are a lot of really cool places for both my communities that gather. But there’s one specifically that I thought about. There was this place called Nipa Hut. It’s a small grocery store and they also do takeout, too, but the interesting thing is that I’ve seen both sides of my family have shopped there. I’ve been in that store with both members, like both sides, and I was not expecting that. But there’s a lot of different Asian markets around—  a lot more that I think serve stuff for the Filipino side. I will say a lot of the Guyanese stuff that I get is usually from New York or Florida. There’s a lot more markets there for those, like Guyanese markets and stuff like that, or West Indian markets. I really liked this West Indian cream soda. Usually, if I know someone’s coming back from there, I’ll usually ask them to send me some.

LS: What makes you proud to be Asian American?

JB: It’s almost stereotypical, but I think it’s the work ethic that I’ve always seen. Maybe it’s more immigrant than actually Asian specifically, but both families have worked really hard to carve out why they are here. And I think that it’s the ultimate American dream happening. Because I get to have a job like this, that I get to do this, and have so much more than either of my parents had growing up. So, in a weird way, it all happened, and we really made it. And so, just being part of a successful thing, it’s pretty big to me.