My Turn: Maria Lazaro Elemos, D.N.P., on what the Lunar New Year celebration means to her

Maria Lazaro Elemos, D.N.P., was born in the Philippines. She shares why cultural diversity is important to her and how celebrating the Lunar New Year with colleagues helps her share her culture.

Maria Lazaro Elemos, D.N.P., has worked and lived in many places around the world. But there is one tradition she upholds each year, no matter where she is: celebrating Lunar New Year with her colleagues.

Lunar New Year, which falls on Feb. 10 this year, celebrates the arrival of spring and the beginning of a new year on the lunisolar calendar, which combines the lunar and solar calendars. The holiday is celebrated in many Asian countries around the world and is a time to gather with close and extended family members.

In Rochester, Lazaro Elemos — who was born in the Philippines — brings the rich cultural tradition alive with a special Lunar New Year luncheon for her Mayo team. She spends several hours preparing a feast complete with traditional foods such as egg rolls, noodles, taro bao, meat bao, rice and chicken. She brings the feast to work, carefully labeling each dish with the traditional symbol and the significance of each dish.

Below, Lazaro Elemos, a nurse practitioner in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, shares her background and why it is important for her to share her culture and traditions with her work family.

I was born in the Philippines to a Filipino-Malay/Castilian Hispanic mother and a Filipino-Chinese father. I have had the experience of living in different countries growing up, and I am multilingual.

I have a medical degree from a university in the Philippines. I have worked in Kanazawa, Japan; Seoul, South Korea; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

I have also trained in Japan for disaster relief and rehabilitation, and was mostly deployed in Asia for disaster relief. I have worked as an occupational therapist, a "barefoot" doctor in underserved areas, a disaster relief worker, a nurse and a nurse practitioner.

I have been at Mayo Clinic for 19 years, starting as a nurse in Medical Neurology, and then Medical Psychiatry. I earned specialty certification in Neuroscience Nursing, Psychiatric Nursing and Neurorehabilitation. I am now an outpatient nurse practitioner with the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

What drew me to Mayo is not only its distinction as a premier medical center but also its unique history, its rootedness in a particular culture and tradition, which makes it not only medically interesting but also philosophically so.

Mayo Clinic is a phenomenon born from a union of faith and science, idealism and pragmatism, vision and action, dreaming and doing.

As a minority at Mayo, I often joke that I am and will continue to be foreign and funny sounding, no matter how much American accent I imbibe, no matter that I am multilingual, no matter how many more degrees I earn or goals I achieve.

Food is such a universal and meaningful part of all our lives that it is a great window to understanding and celebrating diversity and cultural identity. It is also an enjoyable, not to mention delicious, way to bridge cultural gaps.

Maria Lazaro Elemos, D.N.P.

The minority will always have more pressure to achieve, to be visible, and to be acknowledged. I think this is the first step in creating a culture of empathy, for the majority to understand that life for us in the minority is not the same. In my case, life as a female, foreign, funny-sounding individual is not the same as anyone else in the majority.

Cultural diversity, equality and inclusion are important issues to me, and I believe that part of the way to cultural understanding, equality and inclusion is through the stomach.

It has been my personal tradition to celebrate the Lunar New Year annually with my work family in every place I have worked, both in and outside of the U.S.

At the heart of this joyous celebration, families engage in a thorough cleaning of their homes as a symbolic gesture of removing bad energy along with the dirt. Red clothing and red decorations are hung, not just for fashion, but as vibrant symbols of luck.

Gatherings are marked by a traditional feast where ancestors are honored, and the night sky is illuminated with fireworks to ward off evil spirits. The festive atmosphere is further heightened by a mesmerizing, colorful and festive dragon dance.

Food is such a universal and meaningful part of all our lives that it is a great window to understanding and celebrating diversity and cultural identity. It is also an enjoyable, not to mention delicious, way to bridge cultural gaps.

Every dish contains a story, a belief, a tradition and a cultural value that can be shared with others with every bite. When people try different tastes and different cuisines, they are also inadvertently opening themselves up to experiencing a new way of life, a different perspective of the world, and a different way of being.

My hope for Mayo Clinic is that it sustains its universality and creates programs to recognize and develop the immense talents of its people, especially those who are in the minority population.