My mother and I arrived in the United States from El Salvador in 1989. The country was going through a now-famous Civil War, but we were actually quite comfortable.
As my mother tells it: We were able to get visas and the idea was for us to stay in the U.S. for a short while so she could improve her English, learn how to use computers, and then we would go back home.
But once it was time for us to return, my uncle (who was still in San Salvador) advised us to stay in Los Angeles. My mother divorced my biological father and, as a now single-mom, it would probably be best for us to avoid being lone women in the middle of a military conflict.
So that’s what we did.
Despite the chaos in our new country, my mother always took me to church. Though I can say that my mother has a much healthier relationship with mental health than most of her family, being a single mom meant others in my family would take care of me. I was exposed to some of their trauma, or their unhealthy coping mechanisms as a result.
I was exposed to some of my family’s trauma, or their unhealthy coping mechanisms as a result.
Among some of the things I noticed were that one of my aunts lied constantly, and was married to a partner that belittled her. She had some hoarding tendencies. One of my uncles developed problems with alcohol and later became a hoarder. Plus, no one really wanted to talk about the war or why we came here.
And then there was me. Even as a child, I was always a bit eccentric and preferred to use my imagination, so it makes sense that I now write and illustrate for a living. I even developed the habit of lying. Never about important things, mind you.
I remember telling my classmates that a relative of mine owned the Hello Kitty factory because my mom couldn’t afford these things for me. Then I was able to convince a classmate that I knew the Hanson brothers. And well, we were children and I was royally screwed once they asked for proof.
Lying was a habit I broke by sheer chance and, thanks to mom’s church-going habits, God. Seriously. But thankfully, my mom was supportive of my artistic efforts. When she married my step-dad, he was supportive too. We couldn’t afford the best art supplies but I had an awesome gel pen collection.
It was clear that my family’s trauma manifested into life in the United States, and now, my generation.
I was in the band during junior high. I quite enjoyed playing the flute because it provided redemption after not being able to continue the piano, even though my mother obliged my request for lessons at the age of eight. But I played the flute, read music, and learned the theme song from Star Wars and Titanic during its heyday in junior high.
Then I became involved in drama. Though it was ripe with bullies, I liked the idea of being a part of something. I always loved acting, showing off, and I got good grades but terrible behavior marks because I “talked too much.”
A few months ago, as I was talking with my siblings, my mom even remarked that I’d make a good stand-up comic.
There was no more time to lie. I had to practice stage directions, learn my cues, and learn new songs. Plus, I was over Hanson and needed to become an expert in No Doubt lyrics, Radiohead songs, and picked up the habit of creating elaborate designs for my nails — which my classmates would sometimes fawn over or just stare at because that was an unusual hobby back then.
Then I started to draw. I picked up yoga and running at the age of 30 after just walking for 10 years. All of these practices help me cultivate a place of acceptance, honesty, and sometimes, grief.
Now that I’m older, I look back at these observations and realize that my family and I were trying to process trauma. Thankfully, creativity gave me a healthy outlet, and I now write things that depend fully on my ability to be honest at all times.
You don’t need to experience trauma to create art, but you can certainly use art to heal you from a difficult past or circumstance.
Many studies show data proving the benefits of creative programs for children who have experienced trauma and abuse of all kinds. You don’t need to experience trauma to create art, but you can certainly use art to heal you from a difficult past or circumstance.
Most illuminating, I learned that children who experience early trauma have a tendency to become habitual liars as a coping mechanism.
I’ve read up on mental health in Central America and discovered generational trauma. What many of my family members lived through during the Salvadoran Civil War was unthinkable, and it was easier for some of them to put it away than to deal with it. It shouldn’t have happened to begin with but, because it did, we all needed to find healthy ways to cope. It was clear that my family’s trauma manifested into life in the United States, and now, my generation.
Reconciling the need for help with trauma can be difficult for people who were raised in environments where God is the only answer, as many Latinxs were.
Learning about generational trauma allowed me to forgive myself and have compassion for people who decide not to seek counseling. Socioeconomic status, lack of health insurance, and cultural barriers are probably the biggest reason why so many of my relatives never sought help. Cultural norms, ideas of religion, and simply not knowing about counseling resources are probably the next reasons why it’s hard for Latinxs of all backgrounds to take the plunge into counseling, or to find other productive ways to deal with injustices our parents may have faced, and we now carry with us.
How can you say that God is the answer when you pay a therapist to provide them instead? Reconciling the need for help with trauma can be difficult for people who were raised in environments where God is the only answer, as many Latinxs were. It was necessary for me to seek help. I was only able to go to two sessions with my college counselor shortly before graduation. I haven’t been able to go back, but I am always on the lookout for groups just in case I need to seek help that is affordable or even free.
Now, when I see how many people are trying to come from my country to the United States and other parts of the world, I wonder who is looking out for their mental health.
In college, I learned to discuss depression more openly with the help of friends who opened up about their struggles and provided a safe space free of judgment. Now, when I see how many people are trying to come from my country to the United States and other parts of the world, I wonder who is looking out for their mental health.
I know the path to taking care of mental health isn’t easy I can only hope that my fellow Central Americans, minorities, and others going through tough times find non-judgmental safe spaces to heal as we do what we can to secure human rights.
Ironically, though this is often a private struggle, the hashtag #CentralAmericanTwitter is a space where so many others have discussed the impact of generational trauma. It informs the lives we live, the art we create, and even how we deal with day to day relationships, but at least there I know I’m not alone.