Monthly Archives: March 2009

“Talk Me Down”

Do any of you watch Rachel Maddow?  She is on CNBC “The Rachel Maddow Show” and offers great smart wry commentary about whatever is happening that day in politics.  I am a fan.  She has a segment called “Talk Me Down” where she sounds off in an editorial sort of way and then asks someone who has real expertise on the issue to come in and “Talk Her Down”, that is, alleviate her fears or challenge her conclusions.   Sometimes they can, sometimes they can’t.  So with that short intro, here is my version of the same on something that has been on my mind and to borrow Rachel’s words;  “I think I need a talking down here.”

The Spanish language holds me rapt in a romantic kind of way;  I love learning it, I love using it and I want to continue studying it until someday I am mistaken (beyond a line or two) for a native speaker, by native speakers.  Okay, big bite, will take long time…but that’s where I stand. 

I love using my new Spanish in my old profession, Psychology.  Beyond the romanticism, it is a true wonder and an honor to be invited into the lives of people who speak a language other than my native English and to be able (every now and then), to offer them some solace, some helpful pointers or insights etc. etc. 

But a funny thing happened on the way to the counseling session…my access to the world of my clients through  the Spanish language revealed surprises in places I didn’t expect.  That is, I knew that I would be learning about how the  various Hispanic sub-cultures think about any number of things differently than I, as a native of the US.   I was prepared to talk about the unique challenges in blending and  balancing the two worlds so that the native culture was preserved all the while the building of a new life in this culture was going on.  (As though I really knew first hand anything about that.) 

But what  I didn’t know, is that the language itself would become a focus of conversation in the way it has.  Sure, I expected that there would be times where my ability to use Spanish around particular issues or in particular moments might hit a ceiling  but I never thought in a million years that  I would discover in whispered ‘for my ears only moments’ that my kid clients could not understand their parents Spanish!

Are you shocked?  I am!  And the kids can’t really offer a theory on when or how this happened.  They’re ashamed, embarrassed and overwhelmed by it really.  And what’s worse is that they are holding this information from their parents who continue to think that the communication between them is how it’s always been;  after all, the kids grew up monolingual Spanish.  It never occurs to the parent that something has slipped out of place in part because the kids are loathe to break the news to them for one or more of the following reasons; 1) they didn’t realize that they were losing their Spanish, 2) their parents didn’t believe them when they said they didn’t understand something, 3) they don’t want to disappoint their parents, and 4) their parents are out of touch with the US culture anyway, it would just cause more arguments and bad feelings if what was being said was really being understood.  The kid would ironically lose their rather odd competitive edge.

So here’s the foreboding summary;  most immigrant parents don’t speak English and the kids over time speak and understand less and less Spanish.

Well,  you remind me, this has been going on for as long as there has been immigration.  Well I know, I say back at you.  But before, immigrant communities have  been small enough to be kept in their place or alternately choose to keep to themselves in a way that the dominant culture could be rather blissfully ignorant of this glitch in the whole lovely melting pot sentiment.  In today’s ‘New World’  the growing numbers of immigrants alone cause one to pause and realize that ignorance is no longer our panacea.   

Think of it.   The immigrant parents have already given up a good bit of their power (read, fabric that binds) in the family as their kids become their translators in the English speaking community.  On behalf of their parents kids deal with adult matters now;  negotiating with landlords, arranging payment schedules with the electric or phone company, talking with doctors about their mother’s private medical matters,  to teachers about how they themselves are not working up to standards… name it.  Just imagine relocating to a foreign country and having as your interpreter for every single issue, your 5 year old.  You are completely dependent on this little creature who has limited capacity to understand adult matters.  “Cut!  Scene change!  Now show a close-up of the emotional and psychological toll it takes on the kid to be responsible for such  matters at a time in their life when their greatest need is to feel safe and protected and cared for by their parents.”   “Cut!  Great!  That was chilling.  Good job everyone, let’s break for lunch.”

Oh, but those are just feelings captured by words in the script of daily life.  As the years wear on something more sinister is at foot – the English language and US culture begin to take root in the little one and the kids find themselves adrift without an anchor or a steady compass.  ‘Culture’ is as real as it is an abstraction.  It forms and has influence over the child but it can not and will not adopt this child and love and care for it like a mom and dad would.  So bit by bit the child realizes that they are effectively alone.   Mom and dad are talking about values and ideas and expectations that don’t quite match up with the way things are day to day for the kid here in the US .  The dominant culture here doesn’t get at all what it’s like at home  with mom and dad.   Yes, these are abstractions, hard to put a finger on but abstractions with dangerous and real consequences.  Parents and children are  naturally separated by generation and experience but now language, the very tool used by families to negotiate these issues and keep them together,  is losing it’s edge.

Some recent statistics indicate that 93% of gang members nationally are Latinos and this number is growing by alarming percentages each year.  The following speaks of only one community of countless that are encountering this phenomenon.

“Gang membership among Orange County children jumped by nearly 50 percent in 2007, according to an annual county report on conditions for children.

That increase, from 1,205 in 2006 to 1,766 in 2007, continues a rise in gang membership that was first reported in last year’s Report On The Conditions of Children in Orange County, ending a six-year run of relatively low, steady gang membership. And it takes the number of gang members among children ages 8-17 to the highest level since 1998, before a sharp decrease cut gang membership in half over five years.

“Violence may be increasing along with the number of gangs and gang members, and the increased availability of firearms,” the report said. “As a result, the need for specialized units to address gang problems will continue.”

The rise is mostly in Hispanic gangs, according to the report. In 1998, three-fourths of juvenile gang members were Latino; in the most recent reporting, that number was 93 percent.

And 14 percent of all gang members are 17 years old or younger – up from 11 percent in 2006, and up from 10 percent in 1998.

Besides the rise in gang membership, a number of other indicators showed some conditions getting worse, or positive trends stalling. The percentage of moms getting early prenatal care dropped to 91 percent, after three years at 92 percent. The number of children who are dependents of the court rose for the first time since 1999, to 3,447 children.

The number of juveniles arrested in 2006 – the most recent year with data – increased for the first time since 1998.

And more than 36,500 child abuse cases were reported in 2006-2007, up 3,200 from the previous reporting period.” (

It is tempting to think that one of the reasons children flee their homes and join gangs of others like them is because they literally cannot communicate with their families.  And with this loss of communication goes the support and nurture and guidance that is critical to the development of children and their ability to think through and manage the challenging circumstances of life.

I am not saying that the other challenges of being an immigrant don’t play a part here.  The culture adjustment alone is isolating and disorienting; the very rhythm of life changes for immigrants.  Of course for so many families there is also the  issue of their ‘status’ here; obligated to hide in plain sight. Each of these have implications that have the power to make their mark for generations.  But add to these the most basic barrier to health and well being of all;  the ability to exchange information at whatever level about whatever subject,  in a common language.

SO TALK ME DOWN IF YOU CAN!  I am now assessing the issue of who speaks what language and at what level early on in my sessions with my clients.   I am urging the parents to learn English as quickly as they can and the kids to hang on to their Spanish.  Effectively I am urgently pleading with the family be become and maintain a fluency in both languages.  I believe that with the ability to speak with one another, the normal generational dialogues can commence, the healthy conflicts between children and their parents can be fought and families can continue to be the place most obvious for kids to find their support and map for the tough life ahead.   Tiene sentido, ¿No?    – Joan

P.S. If it is true that a culture is only as strong as its weakest link, what does the family crisis in a population inundating us with  such numbers mean to the frabric of what we have come to believe is the culture of the US?  It may not be convenient or possible for us to live as though this were not happening for much longer.  In fact, those of you living in the ‘borderlands’ have been trying to get the rest of us to take your reality seriously for decades.  Immigration policy is next on Obama’s agenda right?   As we ponder this delimma as a nation, we need to remember that what we decide and how we put it into action is the true reflection of who we are.  Most things in life are not planned for, nor asked for, but they are ours just the same.  It happens that Luis and I are in the business of teaching Spanish, but aside from the obvious conflict of interest this question could cause;  wouldn’t it make good solid, practical sense given the direction of immigration if nothing else, for our required topics in school to include Spanish?

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The Underground is Hell

To be honest, I hadn’t thought much about illegal immigration until now. 

Luis and I went through the very intimidating process of immigrating him from Peru which was not an altogether pleasant experience.  We were ushered to the back room to be observed and interviewed by immigration officers every single time we attempted to pass through customs and immigration on our way back into the states from South America and Europe.  If I hadn’t been with him, staring down the officer, I swear, Luis would have been shipped out of the country more than once, but only after being challenged and taunted and yelled at when he couldn’t understand the English of the officer. It didn’t help that the officer was accusing Luis of things that were random and not related at all to him, his life, or his circumstances.  A clever ruse to smoke out the bad guys?  A personal vendetta against Latinos?  Only God knows.  But I shutter to think what the process would have been under those circumstances to get my husband back.  Some day I will write in detail about those experiences…some of you would be truly surprised in how those that pass legally, who have no record of anything untold, are treated upon trying to enter.

So, I had been so occupied with getting my husband into the country legally, those that had not arrived legally have not been on my radar.

I’m not a policy wonk, nor am I politician with something to gain or lose, I am not an immigration attorney or even a citizen with a beef , having had a bad experience with an illegal… that is to say I haven’t until now, had a personal or professional reason to formulate an opinion about the illegal immigration issue. 

As people and stories go, I’ve heard horrors about what people were fleeing and what they hoped to gain by coming here.  And I can understand that non-specific poverty and oppression alone might drive one to seek alternatives.  But chronic poverty and oppression tends to skew ones sense of self, ones values, definition of risk and assumptions about what is possible.  Chronicity dulls ones ability to imagine something different for ones self.  And without the ability to imagine, there is no place to go.  There is only resignation until even that state becomes chronic. Which leaves what?  What is the closest emotional state to death?  I posit it is not depression, it is not hopelessness, rather it is lethargy.

Is there any difference between living somewhere, where in the full light of day, there is no reliable process to help one who finds themselves without adequate food, housing, health-care, safety,  job or humane treatment… and living in a place where all of these resources  and rights are within an arms reach, but the threat of being discovered keeps one from accessing them?  I don’t think so.

And so here is my stand at this writing on illegal immigration;  it’s a violation of the human rights of the illegals to allow it to continue.  

Too strong?  Well, let’s bring it down to earth.  What would you do if your best friend, mother of three, who’s legal of course, came knocking on your door looking for advise about how to deal with the beatings and rapes she’s been receiving from her husband and her husband´s friends?  And what would you do if your best friend happened to be illegal?       Para pensar,   – Joan    p.d. voy a concentrame en hacer el siguiente más liviano.

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The Irony of it All

I have been delaying my writing about my experiences as a Psychologist, well immersed in the Hispanic culture here in the US, because it’s just frankly overwhelming.  It’s hard to know where to start, what might be relevant material.  As I said in my last post, anticipating this one and those that will surely follow this, I will do my best to merely report what I am seeing and hearing, knowing full well, as do you, that there is really no such thing.  What I see is immediately contaminated with my perspectives and prejudices – nutrality just simply does not exist.

Disclaimer #1 –  I am a psychologist.  The people that come to me are struggling with something and these are the things about which they speak.  I don’t get a very balanced view of the people I see and more kleenix is dispensed in my office than yours I’ll bet, unless of course you are a psychologist as well.

What I see are people who come here to make a better life for themselves and for their families.  They want to escape the lack of opportunity, the poverity, the violence, the crime of their former homeland and satiate their profound hunger and thirst for the ‘sky’ which they’ve heard is the only ‘limit’ they will find here.

But living in the shadows has it’s down side.  Jobs are low on pay and long on hours and if you don’t want it someone else does so shut up and work.  Kids need you?  Tired?  Sick?  Maybe we should get someone in there that doesn’t have kids or doesn’t get tired or sick. 

Abused by your spouse?  Well, you could call the police, but then your spouse says the police will find out that your “papers” are a little suspect and ship you back to where you came from, without the kids, so maybe the daily rapes and other forms of physical and emotional and verbal abuse aren’t so bad after all.

Kids running amuck?  I guess it would help if you learned English so they weren’t able to use their biligual ability to their advantage and against yours, but with working 7 days a week and trying to survive an abusive relationship there’s hardly time for sleep,  much less parenting, much less language classes.

You risked life and limb to get here, to escape the poverty, the lack of opportunity, the violence, the disallusionment, to get your kids that better education and keep them away from gangs and aimlessness.  Wow.                      -Joan

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So as I was saying…

….I decided to dive into the Hispanic culture at a level that I know is not available to most, and began working 20 hours a week in a Mental Health Clinic that serves monolingual Spanish speakers.   As a psychologist my clients give me access to their lives at levels, well, at levels very profound.  It is a sacred place we go together and share back and forth until ultimately, hopefully, some peace and new direction is established.  This is serious business and I don’t take my position lightly, but not being Latina myself, I get more than the satisfaction that comes with easing the burden of someone who needs to work out-loud, their life and circumstances.  As the invited guest to a culture that is not my own,  I am granted access at a depth that is extremely intimate.

Now it’s important to be self-conscious about drawing conclusions upon what I am seeing and hearing and experiencing.  As much as I might try to see the world from my clients perspective, I am not who I am counseling and neither am I of their culture. So my perspective  at best is akin to a blurry window view from the outside.   I am not experiencing their life nor am I whetted to or familiar with the social, cultural, political, historical traditions that shaped their experiences, decisions, joys, pains or conflicts. 

I can imagine some of you wondering then, what right I have to be fumbling in the lives of others whom are difficult for me to undertand and what possible good could I offer them.  Well,  in defense of the altruisms of world harmony, and each of you, let me just say, that at the most basic level, we share our humanity.  And there is not one of us that hasn’t been lightened or uplifted by the smile or kind word of a stranger at some point along the way.  Or offered our own to one we met in passing and will never meet again.  There is tremendous healing power in a stretched hand and who among us doesn’t need a little company from time to time on our journey.

I’m going to be writing about what I’m seeing and hearing and I will work hard to be vigilant against drawing conclusions.  I will use as my guiding ethic, what I think we all want;  just to be heard, and in being heard, understood, and in this understanding, be granted our due legitimacy and value, right here, right now.    Paz,  – Joan

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