The stigma of mental health in the Latino/x community and the heartache we are facing as a nation after watching the tragic murders of beautiful Black lives at the hands of our “protectors” comes with a mouth full of rants, tears and despair. However, it’s an important conversation to have to help find healing and drive change.
As a daughter of a fourth generation Mexican-American and a Mexican-Immigrant, my Latina identity is unique and similar to many other Latino/x folk. My father was raised in this country during segregation where he would see “Whites Only” signs, designated days for colored people at the community pool, “English Only” policies at school, and much more. Although my father was only around ten-years-old when the Civil Rights Movements began, he is still able to vividly describe and retell the pain that came with the discrimination his family faced. He also speaks about the pain he felt to see how Black people were treated with even greater disdain through policies, policing and prejudice by the mass majority of the White community.
As a Mexican-American in this country, my father understood he was different, but could not identify the city, town or state of Mexico his family originated from because his family heritage was so deeply rooted in the Southwest/Texas territory. This side of my family calls themselves “Tejanos” (natives of Texas), the land that once belonged to Mexico, but long before that belonged to the Natives of these Americas. My uncles will often say, “We did not cross the border, the border crossed us.”
I grew up with the stories my father shared of being a proud American and yet still feeling “othered.” He frequently reminded me that being Latino (or he would say Chicano) in this country meant we were a “minority.” My father received his Associate’s Degree in the 70s after being told by many of his teachers and counselors that he would never make it to college and that there was no financial support for “minorities like him.” It was hard for me to understand as a child that people would discourage my father in that form, and that the people that looked like me the most were small in numbers in comparison to White people in this country.
Growing up in a predominately White community, I knew I looked different but I couldn’t really distinguish how race was impacting my upbringing, until I went to college. At UC Berkeley, where I was away from home for the first time, placed in a dorm, I was the only Latina on the floor. Everywhere I looked on campus it was extremely difficult to spot out other Latinos, the Black community was even smaller, and Native Americans barely made it on the pie-chart when I checked online (because I needed to know the numbers to make sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me).
At UC Berkeley, I took Ethnic Studies and Latin American Studies classes. I began to understand the term “people of color,” the difference between Chicano and Latino, and I dove into trying to learn more about African American, Native American, Asian American and Pacific Islander histories. For the first time in my 12 years of public education, I finally started putting together history from the lens of people of color. Finally, it all started to make sense.
My history is part of my DNA and my psyche, so denying my history and its reality is denying my mental health and the impacts on my well-being. The same can be said for any culture or population. These last couple of months have been the toughest months in my life, as we adjust and cope with the invasion of the Coronavirus in our world and with the reminder that we are still fighting for the justice of Black lives across our country. My immediate instinct was to hide in the comfort of my own home, make myself little and unheard. The pain of the tragic murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd was excruciating. I felt shame for our country, guilty that maybe I had not done enough as an ally, and then I remembered I was grieving! Grieving their lives and grieving the notion that “we are in a better place than before.” Yes, we have come a long way from slavery and genocide, but we have a long way to go! I refuse to let this point in history to go by without marking a significant change in the right direction.
We also need to change the stigma of mental health in minority communities. Trauma has been embedded in our communities for so long. It gets minimized and we are often told, “just don’t think about,” but the more we tell our brains not to think about something, the more it thinks about it. Avoiding pain is not the same as processing it. We need to experience the pain in a safe and healthy way so that we can make a new meaning of it. I am an advocate of mental health services, but I’m also a recipient of mental health therapy, myself. I go in and out of therapy depending on my life’s stressors.
The things I have done to improve my mental health and wellness in the last couple of months include: limiting or turning off all social media outlets, limiting the intake of news, walking in honor of Black Lives Matter, protesting the White men who were not arrested until two months after the murder of Ahmaud, sharing information with colleagues and friends, reading more about Black history, listening to podcasts, watching informational videos, facilitating safe spaces for staff to process their pain of our current climate, donating to causes when I could, signing petitions that I found important, but most importantly I am dedicating time to myself!
I have been more intentional about my mindful breathing and meditation, being honest with myself and others about how I am feeling, and I have leaned into my spiritual practice more to re-center, ground me and redirect me into a path of healing: to remind me that I too am ignorant to many issues here in the US and abroad, and I too have much more learning and growing to do in regards to the racial injustices of our society. I have an individual responsibility to impact change by the way I live my life, how I speak about important matters, and how I choose to continue to engage with the process of change. Gracing myself with empathy is my greatest gift to myself and others on this same journey of healing our country together.
Doing all of the above is not easy if you don’t have a solid support system. Seeking mental health services is still very stigmatized in the Latino/x community. Family unity typically tends to be a pillar of support in our communities, and we try to be a strength for one another, but we forget that our families are not always equipped with the tools and the knowledge to address significant trauma.
As a daughter of an immigrant who sacrificed so much to provide a better life, and as a daughter of a Mexican-American who survived segregation and overt racism, I am reminded that my parents did not have the privilege of time to process their heart aches and pains. There was “no time” to dwell on those aches, “you just keep going,” “work hard,” “keep your head high.” All of these messages are important and they speak volumes to the resiliency and perseverance of my parents, but sometimes these messages of “just get up” don’t give space or validate the real pain that resides in our hearts, bodies and minds. We must rumble in our pain in order to move forward and there is no better remedy than connection, validation and community to begin the process of healing.
Together we are stronger, far better and we will go much further!
Priscilla Gomez, LCSW is The Guidance Center’s Early Childhood and Trauma Care Clinician at Educare Los Angeles at Long Beach, where she provides outreach and education to parents reluctant to engage with teachers or mental health providers, direct mental health treatment to families and It’s About T.I.M.E. to support teachers and staff. Before joining The Guidance Center team in 2016, Gomez worked closely with children, teens and parents, providing individual and family therapy in a variety of settings. She has also been a family advocate, and run parent educational classes on the importance of age appropriate behaviors, how to develop healthy communication and how to create safe spaces to foster healthy and hopeful family well-being. Gomez earned a Masters of Social Work degree in Community Mental Health at California State University, Fullerton and a Bachelors of Art in Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.