It wasn’t only what Antonia Villarruel learned from growing up in a Mexican-American household that influenced her career. It was also what Villarruel, the dean of the prestigious University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing, didn’t learn.
Her mother never spoke to her about sex. The talk was “cuídate,"(take care of yourself), she said.
Yet, as one of the few Latina bilingual nursing researchers in her field during the height of the HIV epidemic, Villarruel helped create a widely used curriculum, called an intervention, that teaches Latinos how to reduce their risk for HIV, sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies. The curriculum’s name: Cuídate.
“Despite what my background is, I can’t just rely on my own experience. It gives me context,” Villarruel told NBC News. “When I started I knew this was a need the community had and no one had addressed the issue.”
A Detroit native, Villarruel is the daughter of a Mexican immigrant father and Mexican American mother, also from Detroit. Villarruel’s grandparents had come to the U.S. and worked as braceros in Michigan.
She has been the Dean of Penn Nursing - ranked the world's best nursing school - since 2014. Before that, Villarruel was a professor and an associate dean at the University of Michigan School of Nursing.
Villarruel has been at the vanguard of public health and prevention. After creating Cuídate, Villarruel helped create an “intervention” for parents to help them talk to their children about sex that’s been dubbed, Cuídalos (Take Care of Them).
Villarruel said it is better for young people to have information so when they feel pressured to have sex, they know how to negotiate the situation and have a rehearsed “script." That way, they know what it means to use a condom, for example, and not have to search for words to say, ‘I’m not doing this and this is why.’”
“I don’t think they (teens) should be having sex. I think they should wait until they are 25," said Villarruel." But if they are going to do it anyway, the objective is how do we keep them safe,” Villarruel said.
After obtaining her bachelor’s degree in nursing, Villarruel earned her master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania and her doctorate at Wayne State University in Detroit.
While at Children’s Hospital she and a colleague developed a tool to help children describe their pain level to medical personnel and improve management of children’s pain, according to her university biography. It was while doing such research that she said she got the research “bug.”
At UPenn, she directs the World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Center for Nursing and Midwifery, which works to reduce maternal mortality in Haiti. As Dean, she has spearheaded an initiative to promote health access in Latin America and the Caribbean and hosted programs focused on Latinos in nursing.
One of her most notable achievements: Villarruel was inducted as a member of the National Academy of Medicine — the only Latina nurse in such a position.
“I’ve been afforded such opportunities and different things in the work I do that I can do just about anything as a professor, as a researcher. I have the ability to work in different types of settings, the ability to influence policy, working in communities, the ability to travel and meet people from around the world and Latin America,” she said. “What else do I want?”
What's your favorite Latino home health remedy? “We have our magic bullets. Canela (cinnamon) was the magic bullet. Just drink canela.”
What's your guilty Latino pleasure? "I love some of the old mariachi music and the ‘Ay!’,” Villarruel said, letting out a grito. “I love tres leches cake. I make it and I love it, but it’s bad for you.”
What are your hobbies outside of work? “My husband tells me I need a hobby. I tell him I have a mission.”
The #NBCLatino20 honors achievers who are making our communities and our nation better. Follow their fascinating stories throughout Hispanic Heritage Month.