Celebrating 50 Years: A Bright Light in Alviso

In the early days of the Alviso Health Center, the patients would often bring freshly harvested crops to share with the clinic’s staff. Many of these patients were seasonal laborers who had little or no experience accessing medical care for themselves or their families. Like pioneers of healthcare navigation, staff members would assist the patients through the process. On the first floor of the Alviso Health Center, in the billing department, you can still chat with one of those Alviso Health Center pioneers, Marianela Toscano. She has been with the Alviso Health Center since it first began in 1968. Yes, she’s been with the organization for 50 years!

When she was 15 years old, Marianela and her family moved to Alviso from Texas. She discovered a tight-knit community in the small town. “Nothing like Alviso in the old days. Everybody knew everybody,” she says. Alviso residents had begun organizing to open a much needed medical clinic, which Marianela witnessed.

“When the clinic started, people would come on the weekends and started it from the ground. We had people that worked in construction and then they would come and start building the clinic, and we had people from the city that would come help us plan it. Engineers would come and help the community of Alviso. The women would cook for them, and we would have a big party out there. That would be every weekend. Saturdays and Sundays, they would contribute to building the clinic.”

When the clinic was preparing to open, originally known as the Alviso Family Health Center, Marianela would eventually get caught up in the local excitement. “They were recruiting people to work, and the founder of it was a good friend of the family, so he kept telling me to apply for the clinic, and I applied and got the job.”
When the first Spanish-speaking patients began arriving at the clinic they found a few bilingual staff members who could help them. These patients soon learned to ask for “the young girl with long hair,” who would translate or assist with any paperwork they needed. The young employee-in-training, Marianela, quickly earned the nickname of “public relations” among her coworkers because of the relationships she developed with the patients.

As the informal “public relations” person, Marianela was an integral part of the Alviso clinic’s success within the community. Most of the medical providers were not from the local community and the clinic needed someone that patients would feel comfortable with. Marianela became a supportive ally that helped patients navigate the clinic’s services and bureaucracy, and they were very grateful. “They would give us their crops, and we would share them. We were really like family; employees and the patients.”
The Alviso clinic would experience great success, becoming nationally recognized as a model for community health centers. Government officials and medical providers from across the country would come to celebrate the clinic and tour the facility. Even foreign dignitaries would make the trip to Alviso. “They had a big festival, a real big one, and they had the ambassador of Russia come, they said he was the ambassador of Russia. I remember, he was short, heavy-set, and boy he could dance. That I could tell you, he could dance.”
Today, Marianela can reflect on countless memories during her 50 years with the Alviso Health Center and now Gardner Health Services. There were certainly trying times, such as when the clinic faced multiple closures. But in Marianela’s opinion, the community-oriented clinic became a safe place for the staff, “Especially in the billing department, if one cries, we all cry for our problems, if one laughs, we all laugh for our problems. So, I think maybe it’s more like a family… we are more united than any firm.” She also remembers great success for the clinic as a group, especially during one difficult time in the 1970s, when the clinic was shut down and patients were being seen in a makeshift camp outside. “We delivered one baby in the parking lot. For ‘x’ reasons, we were seeing patients in the parking lot… something with the city or something… and we thought it was hilarious. It was a very good challenge.” That same baby is still a patient at the Alviso Health Center. Now a grown woman, she’ll come by to chat with Marianela and ask if she still remembers the day she was born. “You were the talk of the city,” Marianela reminds her.

Today, Marianela is a clerk in the billing department on the first floor of the Alviso Health Center. Her days as “public relations” may have ended, but she has new nicknames, like “happy feet” given how much she enjoys dancing in the office. Her coworkers describe her as being a “bright light,” someone who brings positivity to the space and good natured fun. Marianela is also known for her cooking skills, she often volunteers to bring food to potlucks or to share new recipes with her coworkers. One day, Marianela shared that she had discovered a new recipe that she was working on, a macaroon cookie. The next day, Marianela brought macaroons for everyone and folks quickly began sampling her latest effort. The cookies were oddly hard and crunchy. Marianela had put macaroni in the recipe! She is also known for pulling a good prank. A long-standing rumor has been that the Alviso clinic is haunted. So one evening, Marianela hid in the clinic, and started making strange noises to scare the unsuspecting maintenance person, eventually jumping out to scare him.

Marianela’s fellow coworkers have always greatly appreciated her lightheartedness and warmth, they consider her the bright light of the Alviso clinic. We are grateful for her contributions during the past 50 years, and especially thankful for her commitment to the community of Alviso. “I was always there to help the community. They were my people.”

Content curated by Antonio Nunez, Jr.