Legendary doctor remembered for life-long fight to make health care system more equitable, just

Virgilio Licona - Rabble rouser, passionate doctor
Posted at 12:20 AM, Sep 15, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-15 02:20:44-04

DENVER -- He was described as both a rabble rouser and a charismatic, dedicated health care provider.

Dr. Virgilio Licona, who died last March, was a product of the Chicano movement and a legendary doctor who never stopped fighting for people struggling to access medical care.

“He truly was a larger than life character,” said Dr. Tillman Farley, medical director at Salud Family Health Centers.  “He spent his whole life trying to make the world a better place.”

Licona was born in South Texas in 1949.

In an on-camera interview with Rick Vigil of Down to Earth Media LLC, in the spring of 2015, Licona said Latinos were all referred to as Mexicans.

“Discrimination was not only legal and accepted socially, it was the norm,” he said.

Vigil produced a documentary called, “A Product of the Chicano Movement."  It was made with the intention of being used in class.

Metro State University Professor Emeritus, Antonio Esquibel, told Denver7, the documentary will be shown to students who are interested in pre-med and those who are interested in the Chicano movement.

Esquibel is a well-known Chicano activist who worked alongside Corky Gonzales.


Click here to see Down to Earth Media’s documentary:


Spreading his wings

Upon leaving Texas, Licona moved to Yuma Arizona and then, in 1967, to San Francisco.

He said it was an important time.

There was a music revolution.  The Civil Rights movement was in full gear and the anti-war movement was getting underway.  Licona got involved.

He then came to Colorado to visit his sister, who was working at CSU.

He'd only been here for two days, when he met Barbara, the woman who would become his wife.

He made Colorado his home.

He said he met like-minded individuals and joined the local chapter of UMAS (United Mexican American Students.)

Licona was among a group of anti-war protesters who took over CSU’s ROTC building in the spring of 1972.

He said they likened it to a mini-factory where young men were trained to go off to war and kill innocent Vietnamese.

Three years later, the U.S. ended its involvement in the war.

“We proved we could do it,” he said. “We proved we could make a difference.”

Licona then moved to Rocky Ford and started a food bank.  He said that’s when he realized that health care would be his next mission, because there was a huge disparity in the availability of healthcare.

“If you went to the hospital and wanted to get service, you could be refused if you didn’t have money,” he said.  “That’s incredible for most people to appreciate today.”

Licona said he realized they needed to come up with a different system of healthcare for the Chicano community, “because we were being excluded.”


Community Health Center Movement

That’s when Licona became a member of the Community Health Center Movement.

Dr. Farley said Community Health Centers are private, nonprofit institutions that provide care to all people, regardless of ability to pay.

“They have mechanisms in place to make them affordable and are run by a consumer board of directors.  The directors have to be patients,” he said.

Licona started a health center in Rocky Ford that served migrant farm workers.

It wasn’t easy.

A former administrative assistant, Roberta Masias, told Down to Earth Media, “it was like David vs. Goliath.”

“He wasn’t only an outsider,” she said, “he was a rabble rouser, he was a radical, and (they said) ‘no, you don’t want to bring those kinds of people here and their ideas and their vision.’”

When Licona couldn’t find a physician’s assistant to work at the center, he went to school to learn how to be a physician’s assistant himself.

When they had difficulty finding a physician, Licona went to medical school.

Farley said Licona was one of the first students in a collaborative program between a medical school in Guadalajara, Mexico and rural residencies in the U.S.

The health center in Rocky Ford flourished, as did similar centers elsewhere in Colorado.

“His goal was to change the health care system in the United States to one that was more equitable and just,” Dr. Farley said. “His legacy really is that you can’t work in this field without feeling his impact every day.”

Vigil told Denver7 that he wanted to produce the documentary to show students that they can made a difference if they commit to a cause.

The documentary also features Wanda Nevarez, a CU student, who says she often hears from people who question her decision to become a doctor.

“They say, ‘Are you sure that’s what you want to do?  You know there aren’t a lot of women there.’  They doubt what I can do,” she said.

Vigil said he wants others to learn about Licona’s life-long commitment to change the health care system.


Denver7 – La Voz Partnership

Denver7 has partnered with La Voz Bilingue, Colorado’s largest bilingual newspaper, to better serve the Latino community.

La Voz just published a special edition on medical care.  It includes an article about Dr. Licona, an article about Amendment 69 and one on Obamacare being a bridge from human to civil rights.


Click here to read more about these topics in La Voz: