I am a Latina person who was raised in suburban Philadelphia. There were very few Latino or Hispanics, as this group was called at that time, in my community and school. I learned by the second grade that it was easiest to pretend I was Italian than risk social isolation and teasing if I disclosed my original home country. This dodging and weaving of my true identity made adolescence that much more complicated. I think about this a lot as the holidays approach and I make my way home to be with family. The surrounding area of my growing up town has changed demographically. Mexican and Central American taquerias and mercados replaced most of the former Italian owned stores and eateries. Every time I make the drive back home I wonder if and how my identity integration would have been accelerated or not if I grew up with this community in such close proximity.
So I was particularly saddened when I saw yet another unpleasant story out of Penn State. This story is not of the same tragic magnitude as the disgraceful news of last year, but rather another glimpse into racism and long held stereotypes. A sorority posted a photo of their Mexican themed party. Most wore sombreros and serapes. They held signs that said “Will mow lawn for weed and beer” and “I don’t cut grass, I smoke it”. I thought about the large percentage of my graduating class that went to Penn State. I did not even visit knowing that my goal was to get out of the state as soon as possible. And I thought about how things seem possibly worse than they were 20 plus years ago. The sorority apologized for upholding “untrue stereotypes”. But the truth is that many janitorial staff, grounds crews, and child care workers remain largely populated by Latinos. There are many reasons for this and I will not go into them here but all the reasons remind me that we still need to be especially mindful and sensitive to providing culturally sensitive and quality services to immigrant and minority populations.
By choice I live in an ethnically and racially diverse area of northern Virginia. The local Family and Child Services department utilizes independent therapists to work with Spanish speaking immigrant first families seeking reunification with their children. I applied to be one of the therapists and am finding that I exceedingly enjoy this aspect of working with this population. It combines all the things I am most passionate about: parent and child relationships, trauma and its impact on families, the Spanish language, and cultural awareness. I am often horribly outraged when I learn about the injustices many clients have endured during their time in this country and this includes extremely poor mental health service delivery. I am fully aware of the privilege I have experienced and continue to maintain, as a documented citizen with a professional position and economic means, when I work with these families. The Penn State episode reminds me that we still need to be hyper-vigilant towards ensuring social justice, multicultural and racial sensitivity issues are taught thoughtfully and passionately in higher education counseling, social work, psychology, and marriage and family therapy programs. We have a lot of work to do.