10 Under 10: Affinity, wellness take center stage in Houston dentist’s career

Teacher: Alex Barrera, D.D.S. (front, center) teaches a yoga class for doctors. Photos courtesy of Dr. Barrera.

If he could help it, Alex Barrera, D.D.S., would see to it that no one gets bent out of shape over a dental career. The Houston-based dentist has developed a niche in promoting physical and mental wellness in dentistry and for moral support of practitioners in LGBTQ+ communities.

His strong start to a still-young career landed him on the list of the 2023 ADA 10 Under 10 Award recipients.

Dr. Barrera is a 2017 graduate of the University of Texas School of Dentistry at Houston. He practices at Legacy Community Health Center in Houston, located in a traditionally LGBTQ+ community. He grew up in Laredo, Texas, near the Mexican border, which had a specific impact on his family life as he came of age. The city, for one, is predominantly Hispanic, he said.

“It’s kind of like I was almost raised in a bubble sometimes because it’s all very different than other parts of Texas and, of course, other parts of the country,” he said. “Because even though it was a city, it still had a very unique hometown feel. My grandparents were from Mexico, and I had a lot of family at the time that still live in Mexico that we would see regularly.”

Dr. Barrera’s parents still live there in the home where he grew up. As a child, he was curious but also followed the rules, he said. He has two brothers, and he was the youngest.

As a kid, he regarded dentistry as a service that happened outside of America.

“I grew up thinking and just kind of understanding that anytime you needed any sort of medical care, specifically dental care, you went to Mexico, because that’s kind of all we knew,” Dr. Barrera said.

He has the distinction of being the first in his family to obtain higher education, obtaining not just a college degree but also graduate education. His parents didn’t finish high school but taught him some of the most fundamental lessons underscoring his educational achievements and his approach to life and his career.

“Most core memories about growing up and my parents are of just how much my parents wanted us to focus on education and always kind of following the rules, always making sure that we were doing what’s right and above all being kind to everyone,” Dr. Barrera said. “My dad always taught me that you’re to be as kind to the person cleaning the restrooms as you are to the CEO of the building. That has really affected me now as an adult with how I see the world and how I treat dentistry.”


Photo of Dr. Barrera and parents
Family: Alex Barrera, D.D.S., spends time with his parents at the 2023 Hispanic Dental Association Annual Meeting in San Antonio.

Participation in a magnet program in high school for students interested in health and sciences led him to first consider dentistry. Through that program, he took a dental assisting course during his junior year.

“We took the course, and then it was optional at the end whether we wanted to take the test to become a dental assistant and so I did,” Dr. Barrera said. “Once I became a dental assistant, I started working over the summer at a community health center, at a federally qualified health center in Laredo. I tell people that it’s come full circle for me because now I work at a federally qualified health center in Houston.

The experience left him with an appreciation for the level of oral health morbidity and need surrounding him. 

“Working at that health center as a dental assistant, I’m just so privileged and thankful for that opportunity because I learned a lot about dentistry,” he said. “Just to get that experience as a 17-year-old in high school, doing that as my summer job. I was really thankful to the dentists that were there at the time to really guide me and encourage me.”

Dr. Barrera continued working as a dental assistant beyond high school and into the first two years in college at Texas A&M International University. But before he switched majors to biology, he thought he’d focus on an entertainment career, though that notion lasted just a couple of months.

“I actually started college as a music major,” he said. “Throughout middle school and high school, I was in band and orchestra, and then some of college as well. I played the French horn. It really taught me discipline above everything and just dedication to practice and patience. That was something that I had the idea of maybe wanting to do.”

He felt a little rueful about not being able to afford — and not truly understanding the cost of college — to attend Baylor University, where he had hoped to go. He learned to appreciate the smaller school and more intimate setting.

“I was a good student in high school and middle school growing up, but I feel like I did the bare minimum and got by easily. When I was in college, everything shifted,” Dr. Barrera said. “I put so much of my effort into doing the best that I could to maybe just prove to myself that even though I’m staying here, I can still do well. Looking back, it ended up being probably one of the best choices of my life because I felt like I had a lot of support at that school. I was able to hold a lot more leadership positions and take advantage of a lot of things — travel abroad — and do all these summer programs and activities that I might have not been given the opportunity to do if I went to a bigger campus or school.”


Photo of Dr. Barrera in yoga pose
Wellness: Alex Barrera, D.D.S., is an ADA Wellness Ambassador and plans to create a series of videos with the ADA to help dentists strengthen their bodies through yoga and stretching.

He got to travel to Africa when he won an essay contest through a program at his college called “Reading the Globe.” The program aims to encourage the freshman class to read more about international issues.

“Every year they choose a book,” Dr. Barrera said. “It’s usually a memoir or true story. They have the author come to speak to the freshman class. There’s an essay contest, and they choose 10 people to go to where the book takes place. So, I won the essay contest that year. I ended up going to Ghana in West Africa. That was one of the most defining moments of my life. I was an 18-year-old traveling to Africa by myself. That was my first time abroad.”

He spent three weeks away. They rang in the New Year in Africa.

“One of my best memories is spending the New Year in a church in Ghana with a whole bunch of people in the community and them just welcoming us so much,” he said. “When I look back, I might not have been given the opportunity if I’d gone to a bigger school.”

Dr. Barrera also joined the pre-dental club as an undergraduate student, and that lifted his spirits and encouraged his goals. A pipeline program for minority students between Texas A&M International University and the University of Texas School of Dentistry at Houston led him to that dental school.

While in undergrad, he worked on campus and kept busy with the pre-dental society and other campus organizations.

“Once I got into dental school, I kind of lost that because it was just so focused on keeping up with academics, and I would still participate in specifically the Hispanic Dental Association as a student,” he said. “Once I graduated dental school, I felt that urgency again to be involved in something, whether it was organized dentistry or some sort of group. I wanted to do more outside of clinical work.”

After finishing dental school, he felt a stronger urge to have an affinity with others in the LGBTQ+ community working in dentistry.

“I found myself not really being my full self whenever I would attend an organized dentistry meeting or conference or event, and even in dental school,” Dr. Barrera said. “Once, of course, I found my friends, my community and my classmates, I was feeling more comfortable. But in the beginning of dental school, I felt very, very out of place.”

The feelings of isolation stemmed from a variety of identity issues. He wrestled with them for a long time solo.

“I came from a very small school that no one had ever heard about,” he said. “I came in with a little bit of an accent. I came in knowing that I was gay and not knowing if I was going to share that with anyone. I didn’t feel my best for a big chunk of dental school.”

Some of those feelings of isolation remained even after successfully completing dental school. Despite participation in organized dentistry on several levels — including the ADA, Hispanic Dental Association, Texas Dental Association and Greater Houston Dental Society — they persisted.  

“I was talking about this with some other gay and lesbian dentist friends,” Dr. Barrera said. “We all started to share the ideas that, hey, yes, we’ve all felt the same. People who are kind of high achievers that were always kind of involved as students but not after that. We realized that we needed to create a space for ourselves.”


Photo of Dr. Barrera at LGBTQ+ fundraiser
Support: Alex Barrera, D.D.S. (front, center), and others gather for a fundraising workout benefiting LGBTQ+ youth.

The Houston Equality Dental Network, of which Dr. Barrera is co-founder and president, was born of their initial social gatherings as an affinity group.

“We quickly realized that we had a lot more power,” he said. “We started hosting [continuing education] courses for dental professionals. We started presenting at the dental school at the University of Houston’s predental society, talking about the importance of LGBTQ representation within dentistry, but also the importance of any specific oral health concerns that the LGBTQ community might have.”

His efforts to help dentists be well in body, mind and spirit coalesce, and Dr. Barrera sees himself continuing the dual track. Public health also continues to rank high on his list of priorities as he moves forward in his career. Serving as an ADA Wellness Ambassador underscores these goals, along with graduating from the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership.

“I definitely want to continue focusing on wellness for dentists, but also, of course, travel the country and speak on LGBTQ health issues,” he said. “I still want to continue working in public health in the community health center.”

He has preliminary plans in the works with the ADA on a series of videos to help dentists strengthen their bodies through yoga and stretching. In July, he also started teaching at the University of Texas School of Dentistry at Houston as an adjunct professor.

Aside from these preoccupations, Dr. Barrera has a rich and full home life that he also delights in.

“My partner and I got a rescue dog this summer,” he said. “He’s been a handful, but it’s been so much fun. Traveling is a big hobby for us. We try to travel when we can. We visit friends and family, but, of course, there’s just spending time with our dog now. Houston is such a big food city, so it seems like there’s always a new restaurant I want to try, so enjoying the city is what I like to do.”

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