When Heritage Needs Therapy - A Latina's Perspective

The Month of September is when most Latin Americans celebrate their Independence Day from “la tierra madre” or, “the motherland”. Because of this, September 15 – October 15 is also the month when Hispanic heritage is celebrated in the United States. As a US born Guatemalan, I love to celebrate our heritage, as well as celebrate and learn about all cultures. With this learning comes the understanding that there are certain aspects of all cultures that are to be examined and left behind for the history books rather than be kept in the stories of our ongoing lives. One of those aspects in the Latin American culture is our history with mental health and how we deal with it. Though I was heartbroken, I was not surprised to hear that second-generation Latinos have one of the highest suicide rates, with teen Latinas being the highest within the culture.

Here are some possible reasons why second-generation Latinos are following the suicide route rather than seeking a mental health professional:

1) Familial Devotion:

There are two aspects of familial devotion that are important to observe. The first says that, when you have a problem, you talk to family before you talk to anyone else; and really, only to family. A big problem when you decide to talk to your family about an issue you are facing, is that the typical response is the infamous “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” type of response. If a person is always going to be told “aguantese” or “get over it” why would they go to their family for help? Instead, they are just going to bottle it up and hope it goes away on its own. The other aspect, and possibly the most harmful, is that one isn’t supposed to share family problems with other people. The Latin Family is full of family secrets. Because of this belief system, there is a large history of sexual abuse, even within the nuclear family. Those issues are taboo to talk about, so, if they do tell someone that they have been treated inappropriately, then chances are high they are going to be made to feel guilty if the perpetrator gets caught. It is a “we will deal with it from within” type of mentality. The issue of the trauma rarely gets treated or resolved.

2) Stuck In Between:

About 5 years ago I went back to visit family in Guatemala. It had been about ten years since I had gone back. I was there for about a month and I realized that the culture I had left was not the same. I also noticed that the Hispanic culture there looked quite different than the Hispanic culture did here in the United States. See, the culture in Guatemala had progressed along with the rest of the world. That’s when I saw that first-generation migrants were trying so hard to keep their heritage, that they neither progressed with their motherland culture nor the culture of the area they live in. This has left second generational Latinos feeling stuck because they want to respect their parents’ heritage while at the same time, they want to have the opportunity to grow with the pace of the culture they have to see daily whether it’s at school, work, church, or any other places they happen to be involved in. 

3) The Balancing Act:

Most second generational Latin Americans have had to learn how to live in the balancing act. The balancing act is the place where they have to balance family expectations with the expectations of outside culture. It is almost as though they are living the lives of two different people. After a while it becomes difficult, not only to keep track of which person you are when, but also to even know WHO you are. This balancing act makes it difficult for a person to find an identity of their own, leaving one with feelings of inadequacy.

4) The Comparison Game:

A very popular game played in the Latin culture is the game of comparison. This popular, or rather dangerous, game is mostly played by or for the matriarch of the family. Many youths are tormented with “No querras parar como ________.” meaning, you don’t want to end up like [fill in the blank], or “Porque no eres mas como _________?” meaning, why aren’t you more like [fill in the blank]? These comparisons may be intended for the good of the child, however they end up leaving them feeling as though they will never measure up regardless of how hard they try. These feelings of insecurity and insufficiency can lead a person to feel worthless as well as exhausted from trying to reach a goal that, not only, never has a finish line, it is also not theirs to achieve.

5) Misperception of Therapy:

The question may be asked, why are they not seeking professional help before it gets to the point where a child wants to take their life? The answer is because there is a large misperception of what therapy is. Aside from the fact that “we don’t air out our dirty laundry”, seeking professional help is only something you do if you are “loco”, crazy. Going to counseling is equated with going to the “asilo de locos” or the loony bin. As a matter of fact, when a child begins to show signs of needing help by acting out, they are generally threatened with being sent to the “asilo”, adding negativity to the help that they could be offered by a mental health professional. The problem is that these kids are nowhere near being crazy, therefore help in the medical or mental health field is not sought out.

So, What You Can Do To Help?

The first thing we can do to help these families is to be understanding. These youths are under a lot of strain in trying to negotiate the demands that the two cultures are asking of them. On top of this, the American culture is in a constant mode of change. This is not only a confusing, but an exhausting pressure to put on people whose brains are not yet fully developed.

A place where parents can make an enormous difference is in educating themselves. Learn about the difficulties in cultural shifts that your kids are going through. Learn about the different developmental stages they will be having to feel while navigating family and culture. As parents learn, they can help their kids by taking them out of hiding and driving in the landscape of what their future culture will bring them.

Lastly, seek the help of a professional. Understand that therapy isn’t for when things get bad. Rather it is a great place to pave good roads so that your children can better navigate the difficulties of the world that they live in. You may still be worried about “no quiero que todo mundo sepa ...”, “don’t want everyone to know ...” As therapists, we are held to the highest standards of confidentiality, so, unless there is harm involved, your laundry is safe with us. We at Watershed Initiative want to help you and your families navigate through the muddy world of culture, please reach out to us, we are here to help.

Written By:

Sucely de León, MA, LPC-Intern

Supervised by: Lynn McCracken, MS, LPC-S, LMFT-S

Photo by Ember + Ivory on Unsplash