Remembering Aarón Yaschine, Cal grad who filled gaps in rural dental care in Mexico

Born into a Jewish family in Mexico City, Yaschine was also a beloved teacher, wood sculptor and artist.

Aarón Yaschine. Courtesy: Harvey Smith

Aarón Yaschine, who received his master’s degree in public health at UC Berkeley in 1983, passed away at his home in Mexico City on Feb. 19. He was 83 years old.

Yaschine was known for his determination in providing for those who were left behind by mainstream dentistry. His unpretentious social activism was based in real world conditions that took him out of the halls of academia to serve those most in need. Yaschine was also known for his artistic sensitivity and his biting humor.

He worked as a dentist in Mexico City until he joined the faculty at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana (UAM) Xochimilco.  While at Berkeley he developed the concepts that would lead him to create Programa Comunitario de Capacitación, Atención y Autogestión Odontológica (PROCAO) in the mid-1980s. PROCAO was developed to fill gaps in rural dental care in Mexico due to either the lack of dentists in remote areas or the lack of funds for campesinos (rural farmers) to pay for dental work. The program operated in the states of Veracruz, Chiapas and Oaxaca and in poor areas of Mexico City.

PROCAO trained promotores de salud (community health workers) in these areas who would go to remote villages to do prevention education and basic dental care. Because manufactured dental instruments were costly or unavailable in remote areas, the project developed appropriate technology for making dental tools. Yaschine contributed to the original 1983 edition of the Berkeley-based Hesperian Foundation book Where There Is No Dentist. PROCAO offered training in the same topics as covered in the book: examining patients, diagnosing common dental problems, making and using dental equipment, using local anesthetics, placing fillings and pulling teeth.

Workshops for health promoters who were selected by their communities included sessions such as “Why does Pepe have a toothache?” This didn’t just explore the physical manifestation and treatment of dental problems, but the entire social determinants of health. Pepe’s toothache was due to lack of money to pay for care, lack of transportation to reach dental providers, years of oppression of indigenous communities, economic inequality, government health programs centered only in more populated areas, and more. Hands-on workshop sessions involved making dental tools from readily available materials. Some of the health promoters came from very remote, monolingual communities, which necessitated translation from Spanish to indigenous languages.

Yaschine was a respected leader, but he was also sensitive to the views and experiences of the participants that sought the knowledge to serve their communities, narrowing the gap between those with formal and informal education. One workshop for Mayan campesinos from Chiapas was held in San Cristobal de las Casas in the early 1990s. Later it was learned the participants were part of the Zapatista movement that went public on Jan. 1, 1994.

In 1992, Aarón relocated to Oaxaca City to teach at the Facultad de Odontología at the Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca (UABJO). In addition to his duties as a professor, he continued his work with PROCAO and also developed a deep interest in art work. He was clearly inspired by his longstanding appreciation for the arts and crafts of the many indigenous communities of Mexico. Although mostly self-taught, his developing art work was nurtured by many local artists.

Over time he would work in the mediums of watercolor, print making, carved wood, fired clay, and jewelry casting. His work includes portrayal of the human condition, personal torment, and relations between man and woman. Deep and bright colors merged with convoluted or contorted forms or flowing bodies are seen in many of his pieces. His wood sculptures emerge from the natural forms inherent in each piece of wood. His art exhibitions included nine different shows in Oaxaca and two exhibits between December 1999 and April 2000 at two galleries in Mexico City.

Yaschine was a beloved teacher and mentor to dental and medical students and to the many health promoters that participated in the training workshops sponsored by PROCAO and affiliated local organizations. Bruno Malagamba at University of British Columbia commented, “He was an exceptional teacher and guide for me when I needed support. A great human being has left us.”

Aarón Yaschine was born into a Jewish family in Mexico City. His life took a secular turn in adulthood, but later in life he became extremely concerned about anti-Semitism in Mexico and beyond. His philosophical outlook was influenced by Buddhist teachings and practice.

In 2018 he retired from academic work and returned to Mexico City where he spent his last years reading and painting. He is survived by his wife Margarita Arroyo, daughter Cynthia, son-in-law Gery Koehler, grandson Daniel, granddaughter Lucia, daughter Iliana, twin granddaughters Dalia and Isabel, and many friends on both sides of the border.