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Arroz con stigma

Apr. 11, 2018
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Growing up, my mom would always tell me “El que no habla, no se oye” which, in rough Spanish slang, translates to “He who does not speak shall not be heard.” It was meant to remind me that you have to be brave enough to speak your mind in order to get people to understand where you are coming from. But even with her reassuring smile, I always overwhelmingly felt that no one would believe me. 

When I was 14, I was afraid that I was experiencing depression. I was even more afraid of telling my parents about it. I had only ever known two other people who had depression, and they were both friends of mine that I had just met. When I realized that I was experiencing emotions and problems similar to theirs, the math seemed simple to me. But I thought to myself, “Could it even be possible?” I didn’t remember having a conversation with anyone in my family about depression, anxiety, or even the fact that these types of mental health issues existed. The only thing I knew about them came from commercials I had seen on TV for medication that kept the symptoms at bay. The commercials always featured white people, which I never questioned. In my youthful ignorance, I thought, “I’m Spanish. We don’t have that.” I actually thought it was comical. In Spanish culture (and, as I would later find out, in most minority cultures), there are common beliefs and jokes about things “only white people experience,” like a vacation in the Hamptons, golfing at the country club, and psychotherapy. All of these things were silly to me growing up, because they were used to mimic a culture from which we were ostracized. I never took the idea of therapy seriously because no one else I knew did. 

When I eventually decided to speak to my mom, it came out all wrong. After so much contemplation and fear about what she would think, I scared myself. I thought I was dying, or at least it felt that way. I made a scene in the midst of my One Direction posters and barely said coherent words in between my tears. That was the first time in my life I had ever felt that confused. She felt sympathetic, but her old-fashioned Spanish intuition told her that whatever I thought I was feeling was not the case. I don’t know if she didn’t believe me, but it felt like she didn’t try. The conversation concluded with the verdict that it was not depression, but stress related to school. I sat through study session after study session with peers, teachers, and family members to get me back on track to relieve the “stress,” all the while still feeling lost. I had been right—no one believed me. And the mystery of whether or not I was experiencing anxiety or depression remained unsolved. 

Fast forward five years and I’m 19 years old and in my sophomore year of college. The same emotions I had experienced at 14 came rushing back to me out of nowhere, and I felt lost as to what to do about them. I wasn’t taking no for an answer anymore. I had been through this before, and I was smarter now. I had seen more, read more, and experienced more. As a second-generation American millennial, I knew a lot more about the dark corners of life than my old-fashioned Puerto Rican parents ever did. For them, life solely consisted of supporting a family. Their families came to the U.S. for a better life, so they watched their parents, aunts, and uncles struggle for the American Dream. When my parents took my older siblings on their first family vacation, it was revolutionary. The idea of the occasional luxury became essential to my family. By the time I came around, there wasn’t even a question about vacations or shopping for toys or going out to dinner. My parents worked hard to give me the physical means to succeed. This allowed me to focus on more than that, to focus on existential life. I had the privilege to learn that there was much more to life than a steady income and some spending money. There was personal success, happiness, failure, worry, loss, depression, and anxiety. I grew to know who I was well enough to recognize that something was not right, but I stopped trying to convince my parents of how I was feeling by talking about it. Living with me, they witnessed it. They saw me not eating, not sleeping. They heard me crying late at night when I thought no one was watching. It hurt me to see them so helpless, but that was also how I was feeling. One night, during a conversation over beer and french fries, my older brother made a comment towards me that shocked me. He essentially told me that he feels the same way I did in that moment, about a lot of things. In almost 20 years of living with him, I had never known that my brother had been kept up at night by his thoughts, or avoided eating because he was sad or experienced anxiety as severely as he did. I hadn’t known that anyone in my family but me believed in the idea of mental health. 

Talking to my parents about it is still a task for us. Set in his ways, my father is still firm in his belief that everyone is incredibly quick to diagnose each other nowadays. He claims that people are obsessed with being diagnosed, and like many people of color, he believes that the idea of mental health is for the privileged. With my older brother to back me up, it was much easier to convince my mom that what we were going through was not fake. She has trouble understanding it, but she believes us when we say that this is not something to be debated; these are facts about our lives, and she has been more willing to learn. 

Opening the floor for this conversation has brought us closer as a family, but there is still a cultural barrier. As I grow, I learn more things about my family that seem like obvious red flags pointing toward hereditary depression and anxiety, all of which have been brushed under the rug because of our culture. Minorities and people of color in America have spent so much time working and fighting for their basic rights that they often neglect what is going on within themselves. The ideology that I grew up on—my understanding that certain things in life are only for the white and the privileged—doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to me anymore. I often wonder if my Spanish culture is to blame for my parents’ phobia of therapy and depression, or if their stubborn ignorance is another side effect of systematic racism. 

Illustration by Jess Marshall