The “I” word in Latino communities, and its doesn’t stand for immigrant

Savannah as odalisque*

I surf the web for  articles and news about mental health within people of color communities. I came across this California based project called The Latino Mental Health Concilio that went into the Latino communities in eleven cities throughout California to assess our concerns about mental health wellness and access. (Unbelievably, I could not easily find the date of this project! Poor publication design.) Key hot topics of concern gleaned from many focus groups can be found here. Participants identified social and economic factors affecting their mental wellness. The feedback was great. However, and it is a big however, I was struck by the glaring omission in the entirety of forum responses of sexual assault, domestic violence and incest as key problems affecting the mental health of our communities! I wonder how it would have been if there were female only focus groups as opposed to coed. That would have been advisable. The need to appear supporting our men is strong, and especially strong if Latinos are in the same room with Latinas because we often let the men take center role. I know all ethnic and racial groups feel this, but I do think there is a unique emphasis within the Latino family of pride in a “strong man” and how that manifests.

The omission of incest, familial sexual abuse and domestic violence as mental health issues is not surprising;  because I know first hand how reluctant Latinos are to discuss familial issues with outsiders. I have no doubt that the researchers would have been open and sensitive if such issues were brought up. Even though Latinos headed much of this research, the institution of professional mental health services is seen as “outside” the family and community.  The project ends with several proposals for effective interactions within the community for mental health initiatives. One, to install co-occurring services of mental health within already existing community organizations is right-on in my opinion.  Also, training community workers in schools, childcare spaces, community centers for immigration, etc  in issues about mental health wellness would also be effective. Most Latinos will not shine a light onto their issues of sexual abuse within families; if it comes up at all, it would be in passing, along side other work , usually benefiting the families women.

I envision bilingual literature and ad campaigns that focus on  family health and wellness that just slips in wording about appropriate boundaries to start the thinking. Then inclusion of words “incest” or “sexual abuse” into literature about other family wellness topics would be helpful. In other words, desensitizing Latinos to even tolerate the words being addressed is a first step. A long term plan is essential because it would take time for Latinas to feel comfortable to bring up familial sexual abuse and only with someone who has proven themselves “safe”, someone who has been helpful to their families already.  It must happen in conjunction with community efforts that benefit the whole family.

The other findings that respondents suggested as helpful is representation of Latinos in the professional mental health fields**. This is crucial. I know for myself, I needed to search long and hard to put together a treatment team for my trauma recovery that was predominantly people of color and sensitive to Latino issues. I have less guilt and anxiety revealing familial abuse and my experiences as a victim of a heinous hate crime to other people of color. I am happy my psychiatrist is a Spanish speaking Latino (even if we do not conduct our sessions only in Spanish, it is important to me that he is Spanish speaking) and my main therapist is Indian-American (not Native American, but really, Indian-American.) I feel they will understand my issues growing up bicultural better than others. My trauma specialist is a white woman.  But I had to go out of my way and really hunt and screen people. I even fired therapists when they revealed gross racial and/or cultural ignorance (one trauma specialist told me, not once, but twice, that in her opinion the biggest form of US racism today is racism against white people! Needless to say, I could not work with her anymore.) I pay premium prices for private practice sessions  as I simply cannot find the specialization and my desired demographic makeup in community mental health agencies. Of course, every therapist should be educated on cultural issues, but there is nothing like seeing someone your color, with similar shared experiences looking back at you. I know many would disagree and say it is the way a therapist works with the individual, but that is still my feeling.

This is one reason I write this blog. It is primarily to reach out to trauma survivors of color, then secondly, all trauma survivors, and thirdly mental health workers. I am fully aware that I am targeting an educated, English proficient (I do not write Spanish, but am bilingual) group that is fairly self aware, but that is where I am coming from, and we are most effective coming from our home bases. Now, I should caution that these are the thoughts of a middle aged, first generation Latina; perhaps younger women and Latinas further acculturated (3+ generations) into mainstream US would have different views. I hope they speak up. I can only speak from my corner of the world. My demographic is uniquely situated to both interact with the mental health community about ways to adapt services to best suit our needs as well as within our communities to discuss the needs for such interventions.  That is why I am bearing the discomfort of writing about incest and other traumas publicly. It has to start with us. So the next time a comprehensive intake is taken of our communities mental health needs and issues, incest and sexual abuse are not absent topics.

* The collage pictured here is the work of a young part of myself that dealt with my grandfathers incestuous “amor”.

** Here, I need to emphasize that it is important to employ Latino identified individuals in community agencies. It’s not really helpful to have on staff a ‘Hispanic’ who does not acknowledge any feeling of solidarity with the struggles of the majority of Latino gente (people).  This is where the politics of Latino issues in the US must lead community involvement.


5 replies »

  1. I like that you made the distinction between Latinos that identify with the struggle and those who don’t (towards the end)…I am someone who has been through the discrimination in my early years but I don’t heavily identify with being Latina. I didn’t grow up in the “culture” so to speak..I did, but I didn’t. I don’t have a strong conviction except when I feel that someone is being treated differently because of race, then the anger rises. It’s a very strange thing for me. It’s not something I carry and look for or even notice unless it’s clear. I do notice when I walk in a room if I see people of color there too or if I am the only one, but then I go about my business. I also have not felt the need to seek out therapists or other helping professionals that are of color. I find this fascinating when I say that. It would be nice but I haven’t sought them out and maybe it’s because I don’t really believe many of them exist or I’ve become used to all of my helping professionals not being of color or I just don’t “need” it for my own recovery. Forgive me as I stumble through my own thoughts about this as I must admit I haven’t given it much thought. I know that’s not what your article was about, but when i read that sentence, I felt like you were talking about me. At the same time maybe I’m not giving myself enough credit because people do relate to me as a fellow Latina and I do very much get the struggle. I just really don’t walk around with that as a major part of my identity.


  2. Everyone is unique. There is no one type of Latina. Just as there are survivors of trauma that do not feel that makes up much of their identity and for others it is a key influential aspect. I do think Latinos that do not see race as a defining part of their identity operate from a somewhat sheltered vantage from the majority experience of Latinos in the US though.


  3. For me, ethnic identity is wrapped up with racial identity. Racially, I have half Native American (South American native)and rest divided between African and Iberian Peninsula blood but most people just see me as Latina. I think I have a drop of Irish even 🙂 For me, my identity is a political issue tied to the politics of colonization in the US, which uses race in an economic stronghold.


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