If you take a look at my childhood photos, it’s clear that I was a sensitive child. Most of my photos as a child, and particularly those from my birthdays, show me in a state of distress. I was always la llorona in the house. Overly sensitive, shy, reserved, nerdy, and despistada. Whenever someone was looking for me, chances are they would find me in a corner reading a book quietly, not with the rest of the family joking loudly or gossiping. When I tell people these days that I’m an introvert, they laugh and ask if I’m joking. I’m not, obviously, but they tend to be fooled by the outgoing persona I’ve cultivated over the years. When you’re Puerto Rican and Dominican, you don’t just get to be introverted. You’re expected to be outgoing, lively, and funny. I’ve worked hard to build this exterior shell that allows me, in turn, to make it through the incessant front-staging involved in academia.
I’m not always successful at putting on that shell, though, and the latter half of my time in graduate school made this painfully obvious. My training required that I put productivity above all other things. As a result, I was living a very unbalanced life. I eventually found myself struggling to get out of bed and crafting stories about my inevitable failure. I was convinced I would drop out of graduate school and go back to living with my mother, working low-wage jobs. Of course, that didn’t happen. But it took years of therapy and testing several medications to get back on track. I’m not writing this to make you feel bad for me (seriously, I have wonderful friends and great support system now), but to show another side of the Black Latina experience that is rarely discussed.
When I look back at those photos of me as a child, it’s clear that my environment was hurting more than helping me. My mother, for all her attempts to keep us safe and cared for, could only do so much to counter the circumstances we were living in. Over the years, I saw her work two jobs while going to school, all attempts to lift us out of poverty. And, even though two of her children (myself included) are more financially comfortable today, she’s still struggling to stay afloat. Such is the American Dream.
My father was both absent and present in my life. He met my mother after moving to Puerto Rico from the Dominican Republic, a journey he made by sneaking onto a barge transporting sugar between the islands. His ultimate destination was obvious: getting to the United States. Puerto Rico was a steppingstone in that journey. To this day, it’s unclear how much of my parents’ relationship was transactional, rather than rooted in love. They divorced when I was three, meaning I don’t remember them being a couple, nor could I imagine it.
My upbringing included lots of laughter and lots of violence. I didn’t realize until I started to see a therapist how much this affected me emotionally. For years I had internalized the idea that I should just be grateful that I never went hungry or unclothed—that my basic needs were met. But meeting one’s basic needs isn’t enough for a Black girl who feels too much. I spent years warding off depressive thoughts and flashbacks to my childhood. I dissociated often, a term I use now to explain those coping mechanisms of the past, when I was seen as simply despistada. According to my therapist, I was suffering from three mental illnesses—depression, anxiety, and PTSD. But in my own experience, they felt like a composite of issues that could be summarized in one statement: I feel like crap.
Mental illness can affect anyone—any race, socioeconomic background, or gender. What we fail to address as a society, though, is how marginalization and all the -isms can exacerbate our experience of mental illness. Being a Black Latina impacted my experience of mental illness in such a way that it became impossible to separate my diagnoses from my experiences as a racialized and gendered subject. Here are some of the ways my identities intersected with my mental illnesses.
First, finding a good therapist was (and is) a struggle. When you’re depressed and dealing with the stigma of reaching out to a therapist, every small step feels like a huge hurdle. It took me months to work up the courage to make my first appointment with a therapist in student health. Filling out intake forms felt embarrassing. I finally got an appointment with a university therapist who, after hearing me share my life story and cry like a baby in her office, told me that graduate students were often referred to outside therapists as a way to make room for undergraduates seeking help. In other words, I wouldn’t be seeing her anymore. Cue more embarrassment and shame. After looking through the list of recommended off-campus providers, I settled on a therapist that was known to work with professionals and who did both talk therapy and medication consults.
Over the subsequent three years, I worked through so many issues in that office with her. And yet, despite her ability to help me work through the nuances of my childhood traumas and relationships, her lack of knowledge of my experiences as a Black Latina are what led me to stop seeking her services. In our meetings, she would often call white people “Caucasian,” an antiquated and inaccurate term that irked me to no end. She would also refer to me as African American, even though I told her my family was Puerto Rican and Dominican. The last straw, though, was when I told her about a series of confrontations I’d had with my upstairs neighbors, a white couple who, I felt, were going to management to complain about me because they couldn’t possibly have a conversation with their Black neighbor. My white therapist looked at me from her arm chair a few feet away. “Are you sure they acted that way because of your race?” The question struck me as an extension of her color-blind politics, which I had been suspicious of from the beginning of our meetings. It was disappointing how she seemed to be dismissing my concerns. If it wasn’t about race, what else could it be about? It was time to find a different therapist.
A second way in which my identities have intersected with my mental health is through my growing identification with Blackness and how it was received by my family. Yes, I’m one of those Black Latinas that, at one point, didn’t think she was Black. Growing up in Puerto Rico, where race was spoken of in terms of (supposedly) de-politicized skin tones, and where I was called “trigueñita,” and in New Haven, Connecticut, where Puerto Ricans and African Americans were the two main ethnic groups, and where I was referred to as “Spanish,” definitely added to the confusion. And even though my family nickname was negrita, I understood it then as a term of endearment rather than a questionable racial designator.
It was in college that, coming across literature on the Diaspora, I began researching Blackness in Latin America and identifying as Black. What followed this growth in my Black consciousness was a lot of fights with family members about their anti-Blackness. I was angry at my family for not knowing the history of Blackness in Puerto Rico and for not giving me the language I needed to understand racist encounters and my place in the world. My outlook on these dynamics is more forgiving these days, given I understand my own privileges as a first-generation collegegoer and PhD, but it does hurt to know some of my family members don’t get it. Not only do they not understand the need to combat anti-Blackness, but some don’t even acknowledge my identification as Black. In practice, this means that I get to share very little of what I am passionate about with those family members, and that I’ve lost respect for those in my family that continue to “joke” about race and Blackness despite my constant lecturing. What this also means is that I’ve had to seek a circle of friends and colleagues that understand these complicated family dynamics and honor my identity, rather than questioning it.
Being a Black Latina has also made me more aware of racism, sexism, and xenophobia as contributing factors to trauma and mental illness. That my last major depressive episode coincided with the Black Lives Matter movement was not happenstance. I remember the day that the verdict came down in the case of the Ferguson, MO police officer who murdered Mike Brown. Acquitted. I was living in South Jersey at the time and decided to drive to Philadelphia to join BLM protestors there. When I reached the protest, I just broke down. That moment made clear to me what James Baldwin meant when he said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” The acquittal made me more than angry, though. I felt worthless. Disposable. I felt the weight of centuries of struggle bear down on me and I didn’t know where to turn. In a way, though, it was the movement itself that got me out of that depressive episode. Over time, I was able to turn all of that pain and rage into a commitment to fight these oppressive structures. When a new medication I was testing out made me suicidal, I just repeated to myself, “your ancestors did not make it through slavery for you to go out like that.” This little mantra kept me going and helped me channel my negative emotions at the structures that wanted me to fail—that are set up for women like us to fail—rather than at myself.
A lot of my “self-care” time these days is spent imagining the little girl that I see in those grainy pictures. What was she missing? What would make her feel safe, loved, and understood? Then I work, as best as I can, to provide myself with those things.
Healing from trauma or mental illness is a life-long journey. And I hope that by sharing these words with you, you feel compelled to have compassion for your own journey, not matter how hard it was (or still is). You deserve it.