Rebecca Hester, PhD, MA


Rebecca Hester, M.A., Ph.D.

Assistant Professor

M.A., University of California Santa Cruz

Ph.D., University of California Santa Cruz

Health disparities, cultural competence, medicalization, political economy, body politics, biosecurity, Latin American im/migration

Dr. Rebecca Hester is an Assistant Professor of Social Medicine and the Director of the Social Medicine Track in the Institute for the Medical Humanities. A strong advocate of social justice, Dr. Hester’s interdisciplinary scholarship draws from the social sciences and the humanities to focus on questions of culture in medicine, the political economy of the body, and minority health and health subjectivity. 

She completed her doctoral training in the Department of Politics at the University of California Santa Cruz with an emphasis in Latin American and Latino Studies. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Spanish and Portuguese with an emphasis in Latin American Literature from the University of California Berkeley where she graduated with high honors.  Dr. Hester also completed university course work in Mexico and France. She came to the University of Texas Medical Branch in 2010 after completing a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Her dissertation, Embodied Politics: Health Promotion in Indigenous Mexican Migrant Communities in California, which received the 2010 best dissertation in Latino Studies from the Latin American Studies Association,  illuminates the moral and symbolic systems that are at work in community health promotion programs for indigenous Mexican migrants in California. Based on over two years of field work, her ethnographic study shows how culturally and linguistically competent health promotion programs attempt to deal with migrant  non-normativity by teaching indigenous Mexicans to be “good,” “healthy” neoliberal subjects who prevent risk by embracing and embodying an entrepreneurial spirit. Not only does the study provide a critical examination of the political economic imperatives that  are being promoted and adopted under the guise of health, it also illuminates the ways that social norms are embedded in purportedly neutral scientific discourses.

Her current research continues to explore cultural and social aspects of health and medicine through two projects. The first is a two-year ethnographic study of the ways that academic medicine teaches notions of culture and cultural diversity to medical students. Specifically, this NIH-supported study identifies components of medical training at the University of Texas Medical Branch, one of the most diverse public medical schools in the country, that include critical, self-reflective discussions of power and ethical practice in medicine, especially as these are manifested in relation to racial and cultural difference. Rather than focus on the skill-set medical students acquire for effectively interviewing, examining or treating patients from culturally diverse backgrounds (important components of medical professionalism), this research concentrates on moments of medical training that address racial, cultural, and scientific authority as these are manifested in the practice of medicine. 

The second avenue of research focuses on the social, ethical and political implications of microchips that have been embedded in humans for medical purposes. This line of research is specifically interested in the ways that microchips can be used for social control and tracking purposes, especially for minority populations.

In addition to her on-going research projects, Dr. Hester is co-editing a book on immigration, health and security in North America. The interdisciplinary book, entitled The Vital Security Complex: Health, Immigration and Security in North America, draws from a variety of fields including political science, social work, public health, history, and anthropology to show the inter-relation between immigration, health and security discourses and policies and their impact on the everyday lives and deaths of migrants. The book argues that there has been an increase in Latin American migrant morbidity and mortality in the northern hemisphere since the war on terror began in 2001 and the war on drugs began in Mexico in 2006. The authors in The Vital Security Complex  link this upsurge in trauma, illness, disease and death to national security policies in both the U.S. and Mexico, policies which paradoxically propose to make communities more secure through their implementation. She recently received the Diebel Monograph Award to advance publication of this book.

Dr. Hester is an advisor to Centro Binacional para el Desarrollo Indígena Oaxaqueño, an indigenous Mexican migrant-led non-profit in California, as well as an advisor to Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales, a binational indigenous rights advocacy organization with offices in Oaxaca, Baja California and California. She serves on the board of director’s at the St.Vincent’s Hope Clinic and at St. Vincent’s House, both in Galveston, Texas, and she is a member of the board of director’s for the Health, Science and Society track of the Latin American Studies Association. As part of her community efforts, she is working with a team of faculty and students to develop a documentary on the sources of people’s suffering on Galveston Island since Hurricane Ike. Dr. Hester is fluent in both Spanish and French.


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